I had never contemplated volunteering for an NGO before. I had donated and bought thoughtful gifts for family and friends that helped people in need but I never thought of going somewhere myself. Something triggered my interest though when I saw an appeal by Nurture Project International on Facebook. They were looking for midwives and lactation consultants to help with the refugee crisis in Greece. Mainly Syrian, Turkish and Kurdish people who had fled their bombed and destroyed homes for an uncertain future in Europe. Those people had left without knowing where they’d end up, sometimes with just the clothes they wore and a few hastily gathered possessions. That was also exactly what my own mother and grandmother had to do when World War 2 ended in 1945. With only the clothes she was wearing and her sewing machine, my 17 year old mother jumped on the last train before the Russian army arrived.
This was over 50 years ago and so little has changed so this really resonated with me... And that’s why I decided to go and hope to make a difference.
Due to work commitments I could only go for a short time and that meant that I was not going to go to the islands where most of the boats come ashore but would go to Thessaloniki to help in the camps. The winter had been especially bitter this year and temperatures of minus 8 degrees made life in the camps extremely difficult for the women, children and families.
The harsh weather conditions and other factors meant that the Greek government decided to dissolve the camps just before my arrival. Families were put in hotels and apartments and even Air b&b accommodation. This initially sounds great but these places were often hugely overcrowded and isolated.
We spent the first couple of days tracing families and women who were pregnant or breastfeeding or had children under 2 years of age. This was difficult as most of the hotels were far away from Thessaloniki and we spent a lot of time driving. Organizing interpreters was also a problem. So much of my work with pregnant and breastfeeding women is sensitive and a female interpreter is more likely to get answers to sensitive questions. Fortunately we met a lovely lady from...Fermanagh! She went above and beyond her duty to help us connect with the refugee women.
You hear so many stories and all of them are of hardship, loss and and despair. Some you know will keep haunting you.
The theater nurse I met who’s entire right side was scarred from a bomb hitting the hospital she worked in...
The mother who gave birth when her boat capsized and the baby drowned still attached to the cord...
The little boy who kept touching the walls of the apartment because he only knew the flapping walls of the tents he was brought up in....
All personal stories but unfortunately many of them not unique.
So much sadness and yet, my overriding impression of the fragile relationships in the camps was that of sincere hope. The women kept doing what they had always done, they looked after their families, their homes and visitors. Every tent and apartment we went to was immaculately clean. The little they had they shared with us and they never tired to tell us stories from home...
When it came to breastfeeding though, I saw many similarities to our perceptions here at home. Mothers were told they were too exhausted and traumatised to feed their children, that their milk wasn’t ‘good enough’ and artificial milk was ‘superior’. That they ‘needed their sleep’ and that somebody else could give the bottle. As NPI volunteers we were constantly up against the strong force of the formula companies, undermining this most womanly skill. Many mothers didn’t listen though and my heart sang when we got a preemie back on the breast after a dreadful stay in hospital.
And this brings me to the volunteers. What a fantastic bunch of amazing women. All of them bringing their skills and love to those who needed them most. All of them determined to help other women and children with the most uncertain future.
More refugees are pouring in to the camps, after treacherous and dangerous journeys. The journalists have long moved on now, the images gone from the front pages, the headlines replaced with other news. It’s easy to think that it’s’ not that bad’ any more.
But it is and we need to do all that we can.
Thank you to all the people who so generously supported me and NPI.
By giving money you helped to make a difference but please don’t stop here.
The crisis really is not over.
It's hard to imagine life as a refugee but this poem goes a long way in describing the plight of every refugee now and....50 years ago..... putting us all firmly in their shoes.
What would you take?
To find out more about the great work that Nurture Project International do check out their website: www.nurtureprojectinternational.org