Volunteering in Chios: Sara Jones blog

Sara Jones, health visitor and PhD student at Swansea University is currently volunteering with the Nurture Project International in Chios, Greece.┬áThis amazing organisation works in the refugee camps to provide support for pregnant and new mums trying to safely feed their babies. They provide safe ‘mum and baby tents’ where mums can breastfeed in a supportive environment. Formula feeding is dangerous in these circumstances as bottles can not be sterilised properly and babies are prone to infections. They desperately need skilled infant feeding volunteers to work in the camp. Sara is volunteering for six weeks over the summer. You can follow her blog and posts here

If you would like to donate directly to Sara’s work at the camp you can follow her page here or donate directly to the life saving Nurture Project here

17th July 2016

Water between Greece and Turkey that refugees try to cross. Looks so peaceful and beautiful now.

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20th July 2016

My first few says in Souda camp, Chios

Before I came here I had no idea what to expect. I thought, I’m here for 6 weeks, it will take me around a week to settle in perhaps and then we can get to work on the specific tasks that have been assigned to me by the co-ordinators. I said this to the co-ordinator on my arrival and she said, ‘a week in the camp feels like a month, a month feels like a year’. I didn’t totally get it… I was wondering, does time go slowly because it’s boring? I have been in Souda camp for 3 days and while it’s far from boring, I can see how it sucks you in. The days for the refugees living here is like living the same every day. Food lines, lines for the doctor, lines to speak to UNHCR about their ‘papers’ for asylum etc. Many have been living this groundhog day here for 3 or 4 months.

To give you a little context, Souda camp, is literally 100 meters from the water and was initially a temporary base point for refugees arriving on the shores from Turkey, before they moved on to Athens or further in Europe. Since the borders to the EU closed in March, Souda, like many other camps in Greece, has unexpectedly become an established camp. It’s not in an ideal spot. It is not sheltered from the elements and there is very little space for tents for the refugees or spaces for NGOs to work from. I’m told that Souda camp is full to capacity (as are Vial and Dipethe, the other two camps here on Chios), yet some refugees still arrive. My first night here the water was calm, there was no wind and it was a full moon, pertect conditions for new arrivals, and indeed they came. Since then it’s been very windy, to attempt the crossing would be very dangerous – I don’t know if anyone has attempted it in these conditions.

The refugees living in Souda camp have created little enclaves with the tents and tarps available and families (often more than one) live and sleep in these small spaces together. Some have created ‘carpet’ with old blankets, some have discarded furniture like old sofas and benches under the tarps. Childrem run up and down the dusty corridors between the tents playing hide and seek. If I walk through the camp, I can guarantee that I will recieve a ‘hello!’ and a hug from at least one smiling child. A semblance of happiness can be seen in the children in this way, but I know that this is not enough for their overall development and wellbeing. For exmple there is no education provision or children’s safe playing space yet (but I believe this is a work in progress). I walked through the camp on my first day and noticed a buggy down by the beach. I wanted to check if there was a baby there, but it turned out that the child was about 4 or 5, but I was invited anyway to sit with an older couple (maybe grandparents? They looked to be in their 70’s). They were cooking a type of bread similar to naan in a pan on an open fire, and some fish which they indicated that the family had caught in the sea! They offered me their food and would not take no for an answer. They spoke no English but made me feel like a welcome guest in their ‘space’ – a blanket on the beach. On other occaisons when I walk through the camp I have been offered bananas, been offered to come into peoples ‘homes’ and sit with them. I am humbled by the generousity of people who have nothing.

The mum and baby space I work from is like a small haven in this place of dust and heat, and people piled on top of people. Thankfully the space has just been moved from a tent into a slightly larger shipping container, with air conditioning(!!!). We have matresses on the floor inside and some toys for the children under 2. Each day the pregnant women and mums come to the space in the morning and myself and the other volunteers provide extra snacks for them (bread with some spread like jam or tahini, fruit, and halva – a tahini based sweet treat). There are many breastfeeding mums who come and feed here, but like in every society, there are also some women using formula , for various reasons, so we support them to do this as safely as possible.

The choice to use formula in Western cultures is available to women, and I would not criticise any woman for having her own very personal reasons for using formula. However in the camp situation, using formula can be very dangerous due near impossibility for cleaning and sterilising bottles, and difficulty accessing boiling water making powdered formula in particular is difficult to prepare (there is no elecricity-save for a few phone charging points), so we try to encourage exclusive breastfeeding as much as possible. One woman who visits the tent daily is pregnant but also has a 4 month old son who she is formula feeding. She was told by an older relative that her milk is ‘bad’ for the baby, so she prefers to use formula. Providing education around this topic can be difficult because of the language barrier (an every day problem – thank you Google translate!), but also because of the cultural value placed on received wisdom from older relatives. Of course this is the same in Western cultures – grandma knows best! We provide ready to drink formula for babies like this for whom, education and support has not proved to be effective enough to change mum’s mind. Mothers need to trust the information they are given, and so often both here and in Wales, this trust takes time to build.

In the afternoon we provide baby hammam (baths) in the space, and we do outreach work. The refugees that are 8 or 9 months pregnant or who have recently had a baby whilst on Chios are accomodated in a nearby hotel (like a hostel though, really). This is where we can give the intensive breastfeeding support by lactation consultants and midwives on the team. We also aim to go out to the tents to support mums at ‘home’ with infant feeding support. For example, one of my colleagues today visited a breastfeeding mum in her tent and she noticed tins of powdered formula there (we had no idea she was using this!). Her husband explained via Google translate that his wife has been unwell with a cold and thought that she could pass on the virus through breastfeeding and this would make her baby ill. My colleague explained that this is not the case and that breastfeeding would in fact prevent her baby from being ill (especially in these circumstances) Such a good job well done today by our outreach visits.

I also went out into the camp today to visit a baby who came to the tent for the first time 2 days ago. She is around 10 months old but is very underweight. We weighed her yesterday and she was below all the centile lines. Mum explained (through translating relatives) that she is only having breastmilk and no complementary foods because she has no teeth. We tried to explain that she can give her bread and banana to hold and eat and she will be able to suck it and gum it without teeth – but I don’t think mum was convinced. We went out to see her in her tent today with armed with some complementary feeding stuff. The tent was immaculate and we were invited under the tarp around the back which had blankets on the floor like a carpet and were asked to remove our shoes. We were invited to sit down, but space was made by everyone to ensure we were in the shaded part. We brought with us halva mashed with water and some mashed banana mixed in (a sweet sticky spoonable concoction. Halva is used because it is one of the only easy to prepare protein sources we can distribute) and a jam sandwich just in case! Mum accepted the halva/ banana mixture and gave to the baby with spoon and she seemed to enjoyed a few spoonfuls of it, but the jam sandwich was an even bigger winner! The baby grabbed pieces of it from my colleagues hands and self fed about 1/2 of it. Baby led weaning in action!

It’s true a day in the camp feels like a week, and so on, but it’s not because it’s boring, I think it seems like a long time because being in the camp is like a bubble; a world away from my little Greek apartment where I sit on the terrace overlooking the sea writing this post. It’s a bubble of dust, heat, frustration, fear (there is a lot of crime on the camp, especially at night), but it is a bubble where people are people just like anywhere else and everyone has different and unique needs. Some mums need help from us and some think grandma knows best. Some families tents are piled to the rafters, with stuff and people, some tents are immaculate with blankets for carpets and shoes off please at the door. And so this bubble has become a community for these refugees for now, but it is not the dream they hoped for. I asked one young mum (20 years old), what happened to her house in Aleppo, Syria. She doesn’t speak English but just made an explosion noise and gesture with her hands. Although I know that the bubble of Souda camp is safer than being in Aleppo, I also know that I’m glad to leave it after every busy day and I can also go home to Wales in six weeks…..but not until I’ve done my bit.

Sara x

(n.b. Sorry, there are no pictures as I need to check for permission first.)