Amurtel is a centre in Athens run by professionals and volunteers. It is a place where refugees, immigrants and the homeless, with young families can come for support. There are many interpreters available for every encounter/ appointment where they are sensitively listened to. There is a midwife for antenatal checks and a scanning facility. There is a room for a session with a lactation counsellor where mothers will be given advice on feeding and weaning. I spent some days in here assisting, weighing the babies, filing etc and my favourite thing… cuddling the gorgeous babies!!! Another room provides a comfortable place for feeding babies and chatting, as well as a lovely playroom for the children. Mothers can bring their babies to be weighed and assessed. Once they have this assessment they will mostly be accepted on the programme that allows them free provisions: 10 nappies per week until the baby weighs 9 kgs, underwear for those pregnant and breastfeeding, baby carriers, a free baby kit (newborn clothes, blanket etc) and food: 1 bag (400grams) of rice, chickpeas, lentils and raisins. It seems this is one of the main reason mothers initially attend, for these provisions.
My initial reaction was how can a large family survive on such meagre provisions for a month? It was later explained that there are many centres around Athens where similar provisions can be also collected. Amurtel hopes that by bringing these families in they can feel part of a women led supportive community where they can receive vital antenatal and postnatal support and meet with other mothers.The majority I saw were formula feeding. This may be due to cultural reasons or mainly because “the midwife in the hospital told me I didn't have enough milk, my milk was watery” ( which was highly unlikely!)
It can take time and often dedicated experienced support is needed to encourage mothers to breastfeed in the early days. It can take up to 8 weeks for breastfeeding to be established so without the professionals in the hospitals to encourage them many mothers will give up and “agree” that the bottle would be easier! I felt frustrated and exasperated that by the time they came to Amurtel, it was usually too late for educating mothers in the benefits of breastfeeding. It was also usually way too late to encourage them to try to re lactate. If only they could get the essential support and positive encouragement as soon as the the babies are born. Or indeed better through antenatal education. They would then have all the health benefits from breastfeeding and not be forced to formula feed in situations where it is least
favourable. Some have no kitchens and do not understand about the importance of sterilising, etc. Of course the cost of baby milk adds a huge financial strain.
The day at Amurtel would start with a 30 minute meditation (led by Didi, an Ananda Marga nun (socio-spiritual) who runs the centre) and positive visualisation for the day. Being with like minded women is so very unique and felt very warm and loving.
Some days I was in the distribution room where the parents present their card saying what they would be entitled to. Some were shy and embarrassed, particularly those who were well educated and had left their comfortable lives. To accept charity can only be with mixed feelings. Many were grateful and expressive, others just kept their heads down. Some “tried it on”, trying to demand more than we could give and would become aggressive. Some young mothers looked traumatised with so much pain and darkness behind their eyes. I could not begin to imagine what they and their families had suffered. Some, on inspection of their birthdates looked way over their young age…. Many on their 5th or 6th child. One mother explained she could not take the food stuff as she had no access to a kitchen as she was sleeping in a corridor with her baby in a squat. Another mother’s situation was heartbreaking, she was pregnant and sleeping in the park in the freezing cold.
My initial reaction on seeing some of the refugees was one of surprise. My concept was that the refugees would be thin and wearing threadbare clothes. On the contrary many had fancy trainers and nearly all had mobiles. As time went on and I spoke more with staff and volunteers, I began to understand why. These are the “lucky” ones that had the money to flee the dreadful violence and conflicts, arriving traumatised from their escapes from war torn countries. Many arrived on treacherously dangerous dinghies having paid extortionate amounts to smugglers for their “safe” passage. As it is well known many refugees have and are still drowning on their journey. They were forced to leave absolutely everything and flee for their safety. They now live in containers in camps or apartments that they have waited up to 2 years for!! So by the time they arrive at Amurtel some may appear okay but what we are seeing is often the end of their relentless suffering as they have waited for their asylum. They are clearly still compromised in their situations and some have only just begun the wait for a new life.
Sadly although given handouts thousands are living in what they see as a worse standard in the overcrowded camps. The camps that they arrive at are squalid and have inhuman living conditions. I have heard that some say they have left hell (in their own countries) and are now existing in an even worse one. These camps, that initially received huge news coverage and some humanitarian aid are now being gradually lost on the radar. Thankfully there are still many volunteers who work tirelessly to keep the refugees fed and sheltered despite the appalling conditions. My friend in Athens told me of seeing children and young women being locked in cages for their own safety from abuse and rape!!!!!
As well as learning about the plight of the refugees I have also had my eyes opened (by Greek locals and volunteers) to understanding the deep rooted anger of the local VERY poor Greeks. The government gives them absolutely no financial support and many are hungry and homeless. They are understandably angry that the refugees are given food, provisions, financial support and roofs over their heads.
I also particularly wanted to see where all the donations that come from all over the world are kept, sorted and distributed from. So I volunteered one day at the place where it all takes place. The old Athens airport has a HUGE hangar which was used during the Olympics.
On entering all you can see are endless miles and ceiling high boxes of donations. Everything from nappies, kitchenware, bedding, winter clothes, food etc. It is run by tireless, committed volunteers. Everything is packed, labelled and sent to all the various camps and squats around Athens. It was very heartening to see so many countries and big name companies donating. I weighed and bagged up many sacks of rice… it was freezing cold but fun!
There were times at Amurtel when we were rushed off our feet, other times there would be a lull. As in my postnatal doula work, it's not always about what you do, it can sometimes be your “presence” and availability that can make the difference. “Being and not doing” is a phrase often used in the doula world.
These mothers did not “need” me, they are like most mothers who are instinctively programmed to protect their young and are fiercely protective for their safety.
Yes, my presence helped many and, of course, it was rewarding. Ultimately, mothers have infinite inner resources, but they do need practical, emotional and informational support coupled, in this situation, with financial help and volunteers willing to go out to Greece.
If you think you would like to support refugees in Greece as a volunteer, please follow the links below.