Raising Resilience: The Universal Language of Motherhood

Before 11 am, the Ritsona Refugee Camp’s Mother and Baby Area (MBA) is eerily quiet, except for the crinkle of paper bags and the soft bubbling of boiling water.  The housing container will soon be filled by the sounds of greetings (Marhaba! Kifik? Hamdellah!), the soft clicking of knitting needles, lively chatter, and of course, baby giggles and gurgles. 

IYCF/SRH Staff prepare supplemental nutrition in the MBA. Photo: Marie-Helene Rousseau/Lighthouse Relief

IYCF/SRH Staff prepare supplemental nutrition in the MBA. Photo: Marie-Helene Rousseau/Lighthouse Relief

But until then, the Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) team contemplates their morning ritual: packing brown bags for pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, and their infant children at the Ritsona Refugee Camp. 

The prefab is full to the brim with cases of vegetables, fruits, yoghurts, nuts and eggs to be boiled. Lighthouse Relief works with a local farmer who drops off fresh produce three times a week.

Our trusty farmer with his delivery of fresh produce in the Female Friendly Space. Photo: Marie-Helene Rousseau/Lighthouse Relief

Our trusty farmer with his delivery of fresh produce in the Female Friendly Space. Photo: Marie-Helene Rousseau/Lighthouse Relief

Volunteers navigate the edible obstacle course, creating an unofficial assembly line. One by one, paper bags are filled with a fruit, vegetable and protein. 

Pregnant and new moms, as well as their infant children, need extra nutrition. The brown paper bags, distributed every morning, are aimed at strengthening them during this crucial time in their lives. Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers receive a protein (yogurt, nuts, or sesame bars), various vegetables, and fruits. Infants receive fruits, boiled eggs and optional dry cereal. The larger weekend bags incorporate staples such as chickpeas.

Boiled eggs provide crucial nutrition for infants under 2. Photo: Marie-Helene Rousseau/ Lighthouse Relief

Boiled eggs provide crucial nutrition for infants under 2. Photo: Marie-Helene Rousseau/ Lighthouse Relief

Nearly half of all refugees are women, and one in 10 of these women is pregnant. In Greece, over 50% percent of the approximately 62,000 refugees trapped here are women and children (UNHCR). According to the Women’s Refugee Commission, an estimated 10% of refugee women in Greece are pregnant, however, “services for neonatal and postpartum mothers and their children are negligible at refugee sites.”

There are currently over 50 refugee sites across Greece. Few offer sufficient obstretric services and support for new and expecting mothers. In Ritsona, Katsikas and Filippiada, Lighthouse Relief’s Infant and Young Child Feeding team tries to fill those gaps, supporting displaced moms, moms-to-be and their small children. The IYCF project, part of the Sexual and Reproductive Health Program, focuses on protecting, promoting and supporting women to breastfeed, and providing additional nutritional support. 

In the late morning, Ritsona starts to wake up. Women trickle into the MBA, leaving muddy shoes at the door. Some stay just long enough to pick up their brown bags, and others linger. New mothers and their small children settle into the soft mattresses on the floor, chatting with IYCF staff and volunteers about their breastfeeding progress, swapping stories and photos of their loved ones here and across borders. Language barriers sometimes lead to interesting pantomimes, but the meaning always gets across.

Today, an older Kurdish women with silvery hair and an easy smile has come to pick up food for her daughter-in-law. Armed with knitting needles from the Female Friendly Space, she artfully unfurls yarn while switching back and forth from Kurdish to Arabic. In a mere hour, she has already effortlessly knitted a glove that she says can be used as a loofah.

Across from her, a 8 month old infant slumbers away next to his pregnant mother, Nareen. His little face peeks out from layers of clothes and blankets. The walk from her housing container to the heated MBA may take 5 minutes, but on cold days like today, Nareen’s little one needs all the warmth he can get.

At the heart of the MBA’s services is the importance of breastfeeding, a very powerful tool for women worldwide to ensure that their children can grow and thrive. Optimal breastfeeding could save over 800,000 under 5 child lives every year.  Breast milk can provide protection against gastrointestinal infections, essential nutrients and energy, as well as greater health and well-being for new moms.

The first 1,000 days of a child's life are crucial. Infograph: Jay Birbeck

The first 1,000 days of a child's life are crucial. Infograph: Jay Birbeck

Because of its many protective powers, breastfeeding is especially crucial in post-emergency settings. It also happens to be free and readily available, especially important in this environment. Unfortunately, breastfeeding can be fraught with the difficulties and stresses of life in camp. That's where IYCF Supervisor, Nina Adelaide, comes in. 

"It’s even more crucial in this setting, because there's antibodies in breast milk, so it really prevents babies from getting ill," Nina says, adding that in the first six months, babies don't have their own immune systems yet.

Nina hails from Denmark, where she studied forced migration and worked with the integration work of ethnic minority groups, as well as with traumatized immigrant and refugee women. 

When pregnant or breastfeeding women don't pick up their brown bags, Nina and her team pay them a home visit, often finding that the burdens of daily life prevent them from coming to the MBA. She finds that many women are busy taking care of their children, cooking, cleaning and washing clothes. Many of the women have very bad rashes from washing clothes by hand in ice cold water. 

A glimpse of daily life in Ritsona. Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

A glimpse of daily life in Ritsona. Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

Nareen, who fled from Al-Hasakah, Syria, has been in Ritsona for 2 months, after spending 5 months on the island of Chios. She is now pregnant now with her second child. The details of daily life in camp fill her day: cleaning, cooking, taking care of her little one. For advice about pregnancy, she often speaks with her husband, who urges her to rest. She still feels ill at ease and frightened in the camp - she hopes for stability, recalling happier, calmer past days in Syria.  

Beneath all the vegetables, shared stories, cell phone photos and knitted scarves lies something very powerful. What is special about the MBA is the universality of motherhood and the bonds that it allows. Here, motherhood is a common currency. These daily shared moments in the MBA may not seem like much, but over time, they amount to a support network. 

"To me that is the most important thing - that they use each other more than they have relationships with staff or volunteers," Nina says, referring to the importance of friendships between displaced mothers. 

"Having a friend there in the same situation as you, I think that can make you survive anything."

Many women come to the MBA in groups. Nina refers fondly to a group of five young mothers, all with a child under one and pregnant with the second one.

"They're going through the same developmental milestones with the babies." 

IYCF Supervisor Nina Adelaide (right) and Julia Kende, Gender Based Violence Protection Officer (left) in the doorway of the MBA at the end of the day. Julia's hat was knitted by the MBA's resident knitting expert. Photo: Marie-Helene Rousseau/Lighthouse Relief

IYCF Supervisor Nina Adelaide (right) and Julia Kende, Gender Based Violence Protection Officer (left) in the doorway of the MBA at the end of the day. Julia's hat was knitted by the MBA's resident knitting expert. Photo: Marie-Helene Rousseau/Lighthouse Relief

You often hear in humanitarian settings that women and children are the most vulnerable. Despite the very real risks faced by refugee women, Nina points to the unique power of motherhood, and the very human, very universal, drive to provide for your children.

"These women and mothers - they're strong. As a mother you have some kind of special power because you are protecting your kid, something more important than yourself." 


Programmes like this wouldn’t be possible without your support. Now, more than ever, we must help displaced mothers and their young children thrive. This holiday season, consider making a donation that will enable us to continue providing programming.