I've never written about my experiences helping breastfeeding moms in Greece in 2017 (with Syrian refugees). I looked over my notes from my travels and found it hard to get started. I had to step back and do some soul searching to determine what the stumbling block was. After sitting with it awhile, I realized that some of what I would want to share would be difficult to describe, as you'd have to have been there, and be immersed in the cultural context of the events to truly understand. The time I spent with the women I met was sacred to me and so it's hard to write about. For anyone who has ever done any kind of humanitarian or mission work, I wonder if you understand? It's a strange and difficult thing to come back to the United States and try to explain what things were like to someone who wasn't there. But here goes.
There was an NGO (non-governmental organization) called Nurture Project International* that was looking specifically for lactation consultants to help Syrian mothers in refugee camps establish and maintain breastfeeding. For the pregnant or newly delivered women who were able to reach safety in Greece, breastfeeding was especially important. In conditions where you may not have a reliably clean and ample water supply, and no way to sterilize your bottle parts and no refrigerator to store formula, NOT breastfeeding could be very dangerous to an infant. Greece was in a financial downturn, but they did the best they could to help move the families out of camps and into temporary housing. The Greeks are no stranger to the plight of a refugee, so they understand how difficult it can be, and were willing to help as much as they could afford to.
My day began by gathering up supplies for the women we would visit. Fruit, vegetables, packages of cheese, condoms, rice, sanitary napkins and diapers, donated clothing, etc. and leave the house with a team: one lactation consultant, one midwife, and a translator who spoke Arabic. We traversed the city finding the women on our list and met with them to offer breastfeeding support, treat them medically if needed (or arrange for more advanced medical help), and just BE with them to listen to their stories and offer a feeling of sisterhood as much as we could. It was gut-wrenching to hear some of their stories. Such incredible tragedy and sadness I pray my family never has to endure. And the thought of having to endure this type of pain in the midst of having a new baby was heart-breaking to me. It's supposed to be such a happy time in a family's life. Their fortitude and strength was incredible to see. I came home counting my blessings, and have never forgotten those families. I only hope I brought a little bit of comfort to the mamas I met; I know they gifted me with a sense of gratitude that I will honor forever.
*Unfortunately, Nurture Project International was a small start-up non-profit and it did not survive much longer after I finished my service with them.