In this time of political immorality, economic chaos, and constant change, we need a fresh light to guide our way. We need inspiration, a reminder that real work starts locally, with individuals reaching out to the people they meet. So we turned to AMURTEL, a service and relief organization of women who work around the world with volunteers who not only help people out, but change the world as they do it.
AMURTEL Greece: Support for Refugee Mothers
AMURTEL is an international, grassroots organization managed by women. In Greece, we are committed to assisting refugee mothers and babies to have the best possible perinatal care, despite the challenging lives they face.
“Emergencies affect women and men differently. So can our humanitarian response.” – United Nations Population Fund
During and after disasters, women often show symptoms of stress, depression, lingering shock and grief. Research shows us that pregnant and postpartum women are especially vulnerable.
We aim to provide safe, all-female environments for women to care for themselves, for each other and for their children. AMURTEL strives to reinforce a woman’s confidence and mothering skills, bolster her and her infant’s physical and mental health, and provide information and resources.
“Breastfeeding practices need to be protected during emergencies; infants who are not breastfed are at a manifold higher risk of morbidity and mortality than breastfed children.” – World Health Organization, Responding to Nutrition Gaps in Jordan in the Syrian Refugee Crisis.
Our local and international staff and volunteers are midwives, doulas, breastfeeding specialists, concerned mothers and pro-active women. Woman-to-woman care is the hallmark of the support given by AMURTEL.
AMURTEL Greece is responding to the refugee crisis by providing antenatal and postnatal care, programs for infant and young child feeding, and safe spaces for mothers and babies to gather. Here is their story in the words of director Didi Ananda Uttama.
In 2015, when the waves of refugees started rolling onto Greek shores, some of us wondered what it would be like if we were mothers-to-be or mothers of infants in this terribly uprooted and fragile situation.
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. 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 in favor of formula feeding. We knew that formula fed infants, due to the lack of proper facilities for accurate, hygienic bottle feeding, have drastically increased incidences of respiratory and gastrointestinal infections.
We had to do something. Gathering volunteers from local midwives, doulas and breastfeeding specialists, we dusted off our relief skills and set to work. For five months the AMURTEL team, together with LaLeche League volunteers, visited the camps in Athens regularly to assess and assist. It rapidly became clear that pregnant women and mothers with infants were not getting the care they needed. None of the camp medical units had midwives or doctors trained in OB/GYN. None at that time had Mother-Baby Areas, support for breastfeeding or help with safe formula feeding. Going from family to family, we did what we could on an individual basis. We saw woman after woman who was dazed, shell-shocked from the trauma of the trip, worried and afraid for the welfare of their children. Our days were filled with sitting with them, talking, reassuring, having the midwife do a pregnancy exam, supporting their infant feeding habits and giving assistance in whatever ways we could.
We needed a base for our work but the managers at the camp were strained and pushed to the limit. Just the mention of a space for a Mother-Baby Area was thrust aside as being impossible, not at this time, not a priority. When soon after this the northern borders closed and the port turned into a camp, we migrated there and set up in a small but manageable old caravan. It was not the Mother-Baby Area we would have hoped for but it was a start.
Six months passed and by the time the port camp closed at the end of July, 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.
We saw women going into premature labor and having babies in strange, unfamiliar environments where no one in the hospital even spoke their language. Women miscarrying and going through the grief of losing a child without family around them, living in a small, hot tent put up on a concrete floor amongst thousands of strangers. Women coming for pregnancy tests, some hoping against hope for a positive result, some desperately not wanting to have a child in this crisis situation. Women worried because their one and two-year-olds had so little to eat, the camp menu not providing anything particular for this age group. Women delighted to be told that their instincts about continuing breastfeeding were the best for them and their child. Women who, having believed the myth that stress decreases breastmilk, talked with our counselors and found themselves having plenty of milk and their infant no longer seeming endlessly hungry.
We saw women who came again and again, day after day with smiles and thanks. The graciousness of these women humbles me all the time. I wonder often if we, as privileged westerners, would be so kind and gracious if the roles were reversed.
Now we have set up a Mother-Baby Area in downtown Athens where our services are available not only to the more than 4000 refugees in urban accommodations but also to those in the camps around Athens. The future of the 57,000 asylum seekers stranded in Greece is still unfolding. Some will be able to migrate north legally, many will go illegally, and many will be in this country for a long time. But one thing is sure. But one thing is sure. Babies will still keep being born, mothers will still keep needing support, and so our work goes on.
Acarya Ananda Uttama trained and worked as a midwife in the USA before becoming a yogic nun dedicated to serving humanity. She has been a Neo-humanistic Education teacher and trainer in Greece, and provided perinatal support and education through her parenting center in Athens. As the refugee situation in Greece became critical, she and her team turned their attention to providing basic survival services to mothers and babies in need.
More information about Mother2Mother can be found at: http://greece.amurtel.org/
Make donations at: www.amurtel.org/get-involved/donate/