When the waves of refugees started rolling onto Greek shores in 2015, some friends and myself wondered what we would do if we were mothers-to-be or mothers of infants in this terribly uprooted and fragile situation. We knew that infants in these situations are at enormously greater risk of acute and ultimately chronic health problems. We knew that breastfeeding is one of the most crucial protections an infant can have but that too many mothers misguidedly abandon it enroute in favor of formula (or artificial baby milk) feeding. We knew that formula (or artificial baby milk) fed infants, due to the lack of proper facilities for accurate, hygienic bottle feeding, have drastically increased incidences of respiratory and gastrointestinal infections. We knew that 20% of women of childbearing age in any given situation are likely to be pregnant and that birth outcomes are far more complicated in disaster situations. We knew that these mothers and infants could not access regular health checks, proper food or shelter, or family support that they would have had at home.
This was August, 2015. AMURTEL, the women’s branch of Ananda Marga Universal Relief Team, was already registered in Greece but had been inactive for several years. Gathering volunteers together with LaLeche League, we visited the camps in Athens regularly to assess and assist. None of the camps at that time had Mother-Baby Areas, support for breastfeeding, help with safe formula (or artificial baby milk) feeding or midwives offering antenatal/postnatal care. We saw woman after woman who was dazed, shell-shocked from the trauma of the trip, worried and afraid for the welfare of her children. We sat with them, talked, gave reassurance, supported their infant feeding habits and offered assistance in whatever ways we could.
Two women stand out in my memory. Fatime, a tiny Afghan woman, was breastfeeding her baby but being encouraged by her family to supplement with formula (or artificial baby milks). Looking at me with pleading eyes while her mother and mother-in-law insisted that she did not have enough milk in this crisis situation, she finally managed to talk to me alone. Was what they were telling her true? Fatime wanted to exclusively breastfeed but also wanted to do what was best for her infant. In desperation, she pulled up her shirt, pointed to her small breasts and asked me if this was why she could not breastfeed. The rest was easy. When I reassured her that she could indeed breastfeed and we talked about how to increase her milk supply, she was overjoyed. Later, as we were about to leave, she ran over to me and gave me the biggest bear hug imaginable. All she had needed was support to gain the strength to follow her instincts.
I met Amani living in a small, very cold room, cradling a seven month old infant with a bad cough. Having just returned from the medical clinic for the umpteenth round of antibiotics, her dazed eyes were darting from the infant to her very tired and crying two year old. On the floor sat an infant feeding bottle. I could not believe how dirty it was. The dried patches of formula (or artificial baby milk) caked like bricks on the inside had to have been there for days. And in the bottom of the bottle sat a few inches of liquid formula (or artificial baby milk), prepared hours before, ready to be given to the sick baby. I could almost see the harmful micro-organisms proliferating in the sea of watered down powder. The worst part was her state of mind. She was so overwrought that she could hardly hear any of my well-intentioned words. Trying to calm two children, mumbling about wanting to go back to Iraq and normal life, her very traumatized demeanor portrayed a woman struggling to keep some semblance of balance while desperately afraid of plummeting off the edge.
I dumped the formula (or artificial baby milk), cleaned the bottle, sat with her for a while and left. The next day, I brought her a kettle to heat water for the formula (or artificial baby milk) preparation and a cup, being much easier to clean, to hopefully replace the bottle. I sat with her again and listened to her stories. A day or two later she was gone as they all were in those early days, transiting through Athens for the shortest possible amount of time.
These women were turning points for our work. We needed a base and soon were set up in a small but manageable old caravan in the camp at the port. It was not the Mother-Baby Area we would have hoped for but it was a start. By the time the camp closed six months later, our base had extended into a second caravan and a tented area between the two. Mothers came to be examined by midwives, assisted by breastfeeding specialists, and greeted by the volunteers handing them supplemental food or carrying water for them to bathe their babies. They smiled when they saw us, gave us hugs and thanks though, to be truthful, it seemed we did so little. Mostly we were simply there. They could count on that and in times of shifting, unstable ground, that may have meant a lot.
Those beginning days gradually metamorphosed into the current running of a day center in a migrant area of Athens, opened in Sept 2016. With trained lactation consultants, including LaLeche League leaders, having become an integral part of the staff, services include:
- One-on-one breastfeeding/infant feeding consultations
- Midwife antenatal/postnatal exams
- Educational support groups for breastfeeding/infant feeding, infant care, sexual reproductive health, and awareness of gender based violence and women and children’s rights
- Peer Supporter training, with modules on breastfeeding, antenatal care and postnatal care, having started in 2018 with eight mothers trained in breastfeeding by an IBCLC/LaLeche League staff member
- Outreach program with midwives and lactation consultants going to camps, shelters, private homes and other community venues, reaching women who would otherwise not be able to receive care
- All these programs continue to be provided to our diverse spectrum of mothers in Farsi/Dari, Arabic, French, Turkish, Spanish and English
One thing that almost all our women have in common, regardless of where they hail from, is pride in motherhood. Being a mother is a primary personal and social role which defines them, both individually and in society. Most of our women agree that they were raised mainly to be mothers and this brings them much joy and a sense of fulfillment. The shared commonality of motherhood at AMURTEL allows them to gradually open up and be willing to discuss, or at least think about, a variety of topics, even sensitive ones such as sexuality, gender based cultural roles, abuse, and human rights.
At AMURTEL, we are committed to safe and empowered mothering from pregnancy through 24 months after birth. We aim to create a safe women’s space within which to explore both the cultural similarities as well as the differences in African, Middle Eastern and European mothering. We strive to help mothers feel validated in their traditional customs while simultaneously introducing evidence-based ideas, thus supporting them in being the best women and mothers they can be.
About AMURTEL Greece: https://greece.amurtel.org/about-us/