Creating safe spaces for refugee mothers in Greece: 2020

  • From the viewpoint of our center in one of the busiest migrant hubs in Athens, it’s obvious that the refugee situation in Greece has hit another crisis point. Not since 2016 have the number of homeless been as high as the last months. The square in front of our center is once again full of families newly arrived from the islands, sleeping rough with nowhere to go. Every day, homeless pregnant women and mothers with infants come to us asking for accommodation and help with basic needs.

    An example is Solange. A 25 year old woman from DR Congo, she came towards the end of her pregnancy, not having had any antenatal care. Obviously distraught from her experiences, she confessed that she was homeless and a single mother. After the midwife examined her and reassured her for the infant’s well-being, we gave her dried food, infant supplies and the limited suggestions we have for housing. She was not able, however, to find a home and remained on the street until giving birth. Since the policy of Greek hospitals is to discharge homeless mothers after birth but to keep the newborns until the mother has safe accommodation, she left the hospital without her baby. The next months were desperate ones for Solange. Alone, on the street, able to see her baby only rarely for short periods due to covid precautions and continuously searching for shelter, she became depressed and despondent. When a spot in a woman’s shelter finally opened up, she went to the hospital only to be told that her baby had been sent to an orphanage. Now she must go through the courts to get him back. Though legal work and housing are not directly in our mandate, we are supporting her and others like her as much as we can.

    On a brighter note, many women coming for our services leave feeling stronger, more knowledgeable and ready to help others. An amazing 93% of mothers told us in a survey that they use the knowledge gained in the educational support groups to help other mothers in their communities. That means that the work is having a greater impact than we even know as mothers become valuable community resources.

    Glory is one of these dynamic, pro-active mothers. Originally from Nigeria, she took our breastfeeding peer-to-peer training course and has made a youtube video aimed at women from African countries. It was heartwarming to see her enthusiastically encouraging mothers to breastfeed with accurate and well-presented information. She became so inspired by taking our course that she decided to continue her education and was accepted to study at a university in the UK.

    Sexual reproductive health and gender based violence are two areas that affect almost all the women coming to AMURTEL and in which we see a lot of change. For most Middle Eastern women, primarily from Afghanistan and Syria with fewer from Iraq and Iran, it is huge to overcome the intense taboos and shame of even saying aloud words relating to female body parts, let alone discussing any of it. It is not uncommon for them to have no idea where their menstrual blood comes from or how fertilization occurs, as two examples among many. This is particularly true for Afghan women, where illiteracy and lack of education are high. Most often very shy and embarrassed in the beginning, they soon enjoy learning female anatomy and physiology and the menstrual cycle, moving through related topics to finally ending with contraception and family spacing. Following this are discussions on women’s rights, social gender norms, what constitutes violence and where they can get help if needed.

    Nasrin, an Afghan woman from a small village, admitted that the idea of a woman having such rights had never occurred to her. She and her friends have begun talking about this amongst themselves and have begun standing up to their husbands. Engaged at 15 and married at 17 to her cousin whom she did not love but was forced to marry, Nasrin says the beatings that she received every day of her life from her husband have begun to decrease. She feels hopeful that with time and further acclimation into European society, they will decrease even more.

    Their stories are many. A great number of African women, from more than ten different countries with the current majority being French speakers from Cameroon and DR Congo, report feeling safe in Greece, that the violence they endured in their native countries was everywhere: in the home, the streets and the workplace. Many of our African women are single mothers whose children are the results of sexual violence or survival sex.

    Afryea, a Ghanian mother of one, was sold as a teenager into a rich man’s house, used as a servant and sex slave and had her first child taken away at birth, most probably to be sold or enslaved. She does not know what happened to him. Managing to escape with the help of a man who became her husband, they spent years en route and finally arrived in Athens, where they’ve settled and had a child. Afryea emphatically states that the hardships she’s been through to get to Greece have all been worth it because what she lived through will never happen here to her daughter.

    The stories of the Middle Eastern women are different and tend to center around the theme of having been homebound with their lives controlled by male family members. In Afghanistan, for example, a woman’s name is never uttered in public, not written on documents including the wedding invitation when she marries, medical prescriptions or hospital records when ill, not even on her death certificate or tombstone. She is always referred to as the wife, daughter, sister or mother of male relatives and that includes when speaking directly to her. In parts of the country, especially villages, women never leave the house without a male guardian. Thus, many women’s first step is to become independent little by little. Some proudly declare that they move around Athens on their own or with their children without having to have husbands or guardians with them while others say they are still not allowed to do that. A few tell that they no longer ask their husband’s permission every time they go out. Many want to study, an option not previously open to them. They say they have become stronger and speak their minds more readily. Shirin, a Syrian mother of 3, thinks she is one of the lucky ones because, “I voice my opinions with my husband in ways I did not do in Syria and my husband listens in ways he didn’t in Syria.”

    Maryam, a 24 year old with one child, divulged in a group conversation that she wanted two or three children but her husband wanted seven. She and the other women all laughed and nodded their heads while one woman came out with the suggestion to let him take a second wife. That way, Maryam and her children would still be supported but she would not be forced to have more. Some of the women immediately agreed that this was the sensible solution while others, who were first wives and did not like having second or third wives in the family, disagreed. Maryam retorted as a strong, idealistic and hopeful 24 year old that she did not want her husband to marry more wives. She said now that she was in Europe and she knew her rights, she would ask him not to, begging, screaming, crying if necessary. Maryam went on to admit that in Afghanistan, in this situation she would never have said a word, despite how painful it would be. Of course, she and the others all agreed that if he decided to do it, she could not stop him. It was his choice ultimately, not hers. In the end, the fact that polygamy is outlawed in Europe gives Maryam a feeling of safety but not surety.

    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 fulfilment. 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 18 months after birth. We aim to strengthen mothering skills by creating a safe women’s space within which to explore both the cultural similarities as well as the differences in African, Middle Eastern and European parenting. We strive to help mothers feel validated in their traditional customs while simultaneously introducing evidence-based ideas.

    Our aim and hope at AMURTEL is that women will become stronger through knowledge, making friends and finding themselves part of a community of mothers. We believe everyone has the right and the capacity to maintain or regain their health, well-being, dignity and self-determination.

    To learn more please visit www.greece.amurtel.org

  • A new Center: 2016

    After a year working in the refugee camps, Amurtel Greece shifted venues in October, 2016 and opened a Mother-Baby Center in the migrant area of downtown Athens. That was eight months ago and the center is thriving. The number of women coming has more than tripled since we first opened. Our midwives and lactation consultants see up to 15 women/day, giving them each from half an hour to an hour for their care. Our woman based center makes every effort not to rush women through exams or consultations, giving them the chance to talk, express, ask questions and basically to feel safe and cared for. The midwives arrange group sessions both in our center and in the premises of other NGO’s to help women understand things such as reproductive health and contraception, the pros and cons of breastfeeding and formula feeding, and how to prepare for giving birth in a Greek hospital.

    Our distribution team works hard at getting donations of diapers, supplemental food for pregnant and lactating mothers, clothes and hygiene items for infants up to one year, baby carriers and other assorted items all mums and babies need. Our outreach teams visit moms and infants in the squats, hotels, and apartments that house over 6000 refugees in the Athens area. And we sometimes make visits to hospitals as well when women and infants we know are hospitalized and need support.

    Amurtel Greece is funded totally by private donations and is appreciative of any help, no matter how big or small.

    To learn more please visit www.greece.amurtel.org

  • Midwife scanning a pregnant Syrian woman
    AMURTEL staff member fitting an African mother and her baby with a baby carrier
    Afghan mother with her baby who was hospitalized for malnutrition

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