Motherhood is tough. But mothers fleeing the homes they’ve built, face unique and extra struggles.
Some give birth while traveling. On the Balkan route, I’ve met women walking in sub-zero temperatures while carrying newborns as young as ten days old. Single mothers braving the journey almost collapsing from exhaustion. Despite this, they still summon every last ounce of strength to breastfeed and care for their children.
I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve frantically tried to warm their babies on the back seat of my car with heaters blasting, as they arrived on the shores of Chios in the dead of winter in un-seaworthy dinghies. Scared, cold, crying and collapsing onto dry land in relief.
But some aren’t so lucky: They miscarry due to the harsh physical conditions. I will never forget the heartbreaking sobs of a mother who’ve miscarried, in Presevo Serbia, trying to endure the Balkan route. The excruciating long wait and stress, while being exposed to elements for a travel visa so she could move on to Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, then Germany where her husband was waiting, cost them the life of an unborn baby.
Or how one was bleeding when she got right off the boat, had to be sent to the hospital, but one of the twins she was carrying didn’t survive in the safety of her womb from the dangerous journey.
It was scandalous how she had to return to rest in undignified “reception” conditions, on the ground of a make-shift hut only to be sent to Vial after. I remember how tired she was after the procedure, tried to sleep but woke up to tend to rest of her 3 children, despite assistance on hand. I helped her peel some eggs and how hard I had to choke back on my tears when she, during one of the heartbreaking moments a mother has to face, offered me one first. I wanted to scream, but I smiled, said thank you, stuffed the entire egg in my mouth, focused on every bite so I wouldn’t cry.
K is a 20 years old girl from Iraq, who had her living quarters attacked by right wing extremist, with rocks weighing as heavy as 20kg. Rocks intended to kill. She was only allowed out of the camp, hours after the attack “for security reasons” – those hours she spent crouching in a corner, and in pain could have probably saved her crying her eyes out, on a hospital bed after she realising she lost both babies.
Or the screams that rang through my ears, made by hysterical mothers over the deaths of their small children, while making this journey.
Not forgetting the heavy weight on their shoulders to make the painful decision in having an abortion because they “just couldn’t” have another baby under such difficult circumstances. The guilt I could feel, oozing from their pores after, was simply crushing.
In all these incidents, I felt that I’ve intruded in such private moments of grief, inflicted by the unnecessary toll the journey took on their bodies. Unnecessary due to the lack of safe passage.
For those with children, conditions for those with children in camps for these mothers are dire. Protecting their children from physical harm, and child predators are the only one small aspect of these mothers’ face. For mothers and mothers-to-be in particular, caring for themselves and for children are nothing short of challenging, due to a lack of basic resources, like food, clean water and healthcare.
The psychological toll on them in caring for their children, is an aspect of the refugee mother’s experience as they remain stranded for months on end, in suspended limbo.
For women separated from their husband awaiting family reunification, we’ve witnessed how that causes acute emotional distress and anxiety in the children, and compounds the stress on their mothers. Adult males generally make the trip to Europe first and the rest of the family following later. With the implementation of the flawed EU-Turkey deal, the borders slammed shut and families, torn apart, despite their legitimate right under the Dublin Agreement to join their spouses in destination countries like Germany or Sweden. A process that takes on average 10 months to two years,
In 2016, women make up 50% of the arrivals in Greece. And according to UNICEF, nearly 5000 family reunification requests were made from Greece, with only 1107 successful applicants having reached their destination country by the end of the year. And some being separated from their husbands who’ve made the journey, lack access to crucial information and support.
The amount of patience, resilience and strength that these women have displayed, is nothing short of incredible – all for their children as their main motivation. To keep on going. And to keep on believing in a better life.
On Mother’s Day, I salute all the women who’ve taught me important lessons – lessons that will take me years to learn if I haven’t come face to face with such incredible human beings.
To all the mothers trapped here, we are with all you warriors. To all other mothers out there, as you are celebrating this day dedicated to mothers with your children and families: We ask you to stand with us. Get involved. Help us raise their voices and demand safety and dignity.
Remember, no mother will put her child on such a dangerous journey across the Aegean unless water is safe than land. #MakeItSafe
** All photos taken with permission of the women.