Two young children are shown playing with a grocery cart with container homes shown in the background.

Women & Girls

Mothers and babies lack basic needs in Greek refugee camps

Almost two-thirds of asylum-seekers in Greece are women and children. Greece continues to struggle with how to accommodate migrants — especially this new population, which has needs that are unique to pregnant and nursing mothers and babies.

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Children amuse themselves in the Malakasa refugee camp on the outskirts of Athens. Asylum-seekers mostly live in containers as they await their cases to be adjudicated.

Credit:

Matt Rogers/The World

The first real shelter that Nadereh Shahbazi and her family slept in when they arrived in Greece was a tent pitched under a piece of red, corrugated iron that shielded them from the relentless Athens, Greece, sun. But when it rained, their tent floated in the mud.

The family of three escaped from their home in Afghanistan fearing for their lives, and after weeks of homelessness in Athens, the family managed to find a tent in a refugee camp on the city's outskirts.

Shahbazi was full term and could have given birth in the tent at any moment if Sahar Kamrani, a refugee advocate, hadn’t walked by and found her. 

“They were sleeping next to a tree in the mud of the camp in Malakasa,” Kamrani said. 

Related: Some refugees in Greece wish they hadn't won their cases

The Malakasa camp is run by the International Organization for Migration, and most asylum-seekers receive a container for shelter. But for newcomers, especially those not yet registered with the Greek government, pitching a tent is the only option. 

Kamrani, a refugee from Iran who now runs an organization called One Heart to help newly arriving asylum-seekers, immediately brought Shahbazi to a doctor she knows. “I work with a Greek gynecologist who, once a month, provides free services for the refugees,” Kamrani said. That doctor wrote a letter that helped Shahbazi check into a Greek hospital where her baby was born. It was a complicated cesarean section birth.

Yet, days later, she was back under the tree, now with a newborn. 

A woman is shown wearing a dark head scarf while holding an infant and looking at another woman holding papers.

Inside a container in the Malakasa refugee camp in Athens, refugee advocate, Sahar Kamrani (right) looks at paperwork that Nadereh Shahbazi (left) doesn't understand. Kamrani spends her days helping families navigate the complicated asylum process in Greece.

Credit:

Matt Rogers/The World

When the migrant crisis started in Greece in 2015, men made up the majority of arrivals. Although migrant numbers have decreased dramatically since 2016, asylum-seekers continue to arrive on Greece’s shores. Now, almost two-thirds of the asylum-seekers are women and children. Today, there are as many children seeking asylum in Greece as there are adult men. Greece continues to struggle with how to accommodate migrants — especially this new population of asylum-seekers.

Shahbazi fled Afghanistan two years ago, and she and her husband and toddler ended up in a camp in Turkey where conditions were horrible. She learned she was pregnant, and the family fled again in search of better conditions, only to land in Athens a few weeks before she delivered her baby. They had no place to live.

“We slept in a park for several nights,” Shahbazi said. 

“We went every day and cried and cried and cried; whatever we said, it didn’t really help at all.”

Nadereh Shahbazi

When they finally made their way to the Malakasa refugee camp, Shahbazi and her husband begged managers for a container. But they were rebuffed and told to leave. “Don’t waste your time, don’t stay in this camp because you’re not registered,” Shahbazi said she was told. “We went every day and cried and cried and cried; whatever we said, it didn’t really help at all.” 

The family continued to live in a tent next to a trash pile. They had no other option. 

Greece has come a long way in a very short period when it comes to infrastructure to handle over 1 million asylum-seekers processed since 2015. The majority arrive on boats, so Greek authorities set up official registration offices on various Greek islands such as Lesvos and Samos. Once registered, refugees receive a place to live in a refugee camp and a cash card to buy food and other basics. 

Asylum-seekers can also register from Athens, the capital, where Shahbazi and her family attempted to register, but the process proved byzantine and ineffectual. Shahbazi was simply told to leave Athens. “They said go back to [an] island and get started from there — you have to be relocated [to Athens] from an island.”

A women is shown wearing a dark head scarf holding an infant and sitting next to a man wearing all white and a young girl sitting in-between.

Azimollah Shahbazi, Boshra (age 2), Nadereh Shahbazi and baby Mustafa are shown in their container home (left to right) — given to them after Mustafa was born — by the International Organization for Migration in the Malakasa refugee camp in Athens.

Credit:

Matt Rogers/The World

Related: Syrian refugee 'hero swimmer' Sara Mardini is out of prison. She plans to keep helping refugees.

After the baby was born, Kamrani successfully pushed the IOM to give the family a container even though they had not yet successfully registered as asylum-seekers. While Shahbazi is grateful for the small container, she struggles to feed herself, her baby and the family. They have no money to buy food and because they still have not managed to register, they have not received a cash card. 

“I have to eat myself to be able to have more nutrition in my breast milk to give to my baby to gain weight. That’s the best way. But I don’t have food to eat so as a result, my milk doesn’t have the power to grow the baby.”

Nadereh Shahbazi

“I have to eat myself to be able to have more nutrition in my breast milk to give to my baby to gain weight. That’s the best way,” Shahbazi said. “But I don’t have food to eat so as a result, my milk doesn’t have the power to grow the baby.”

The baby is 1 month old. He is tiny and now drinks formula. Yet, his mother doesn’t have money to buy all the formula he needs.

Kamrani said many migrant mothers struggle to buy milk. “Formula is very, very expensive in Greece, the majority cannot even afford [to] buy it,” Kamrani said. “So, in order for them to make it through the month, they add more water into it so they can make it go through the whole month.” 

Watering down infant formula is not uncommon in poor families — and it means less caloric intake and less nutrition for the baby. It can also lead to seizures and brain damage. 

Providing adequate supplies of infant formula might seem like basic help for refugee families, but Greece is still climbing out of its own economic crisis and doesn't provide it. 

Boris Cheshirkov, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Athens, said the Greek government is doing its best, but that other basics, like shelter, are still the priority.

“What has Greece done? In 2015, it could accommodate 1,000 asylum-seekers. Today, it can do it for 50,000 asylum-seekers [with] adequate conditions,” Cheshirkov said. “However, we don’t have 50,000 asylum-seekers, we have 80,000 asylum-seekers and refugees.”

Boris Cheshirkov, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Athens

“What has Greece done? In 2015, it could accommodate 1,000 asylum-seekers. Today, it can do it for 50,000 asylum-seekers [with] adequate conditions,” Cheshirkov said. “However, we don’t have 50,000 asylum-seekers, we have 80,000 asylum-seekers and refugees.” 

A growing number of refugees are babies, and for some, their situations are worse than their mothers having to water down the formula, Cheshirkov said. “We do have infants [who stay] in tents that don’t have access to water and sanitation, to lighting and electricity,” he said.

A large white tent is shown with a group of women standing among smaller pup tents.

There are not enough containers to house the families that arrive almost daily at the Malakasa refugee camp in Athens, so the camp has some bigger tents where asylum-seekers can pitch their own tent.

Credit:

Matt Rogers/The World

Related: Refugee women in Greece are moving forward. But many men around them are not.

There’s also very little medical care for infants in refugee camps. Pediatric nurse Alina Steinhausen said the situation is dire. 

“In most [refugee] camps, there is only one clinic with one or two doctors, which is funded by the government, and usually that doctor might not be a pediatrician or someone who is especially qualified for babies and children,” she said. “And doctors are only there for two hours a day.”

Steinhausen volunteers with an international nongovernmental organization called Medical Volunteers International. She’s based at a clinic in Athens where asylum-seekers get free medical care. Parents, too, can ask a doctor about their health, as few have the chance to get professional medical care in the camps. 

On a recent June morning, as a doctor at a Seeds for Change clinic in central Athens examined a baby, he determined a standard cream would help clear up a rash the baby had for weeks. Yet, there was not enough supply of the medicinal cream in the clinic to give the parents a full dose. The baby received all they had — enough for a few days of application. 

Children’s physical health is precarious among the refugee population, but brain development is also a concern, according to Cherilyn Orr, a brain and trauma expert originally from Canada. Parents, many with post-traumatic stress disorders, are under immense pressure, and Orr sees mothers with little space to soothe or engage their children. 

“When you have a mother that has PTSD, she doesn’t have the capacity to help a child to feel safe and valued and so their brains are not developing —  they’re living in fear.”

Cherilyn Orr, brain and trauma expert

“When you have a mother that has PTSD, she doesn’t have the capacity to help a child to feel safe and valued and so their brains are not developing —  they’re living in fear,” Orr said. 

Orr trains refugee parents in how to create a safe and nurturing environment for their littlest ones, even when they might be living in an unsanitary tent — or homeless. 

“A child, when they’re hurt, sick and afraid and those synapses connect that nobody was there, ‘I cried, nobody came to me [so] I stopped crying,’ that damages the child’s brain,” Orr said.

Orr said healthy brain development matters just as much as securing a safe place for a baby to live and receive nutritious food. In Athens, Orr pushes a 1-year-old Syrian girl in a stroller. The girl’s mother is homeless, now with a newborn as well, and has struggled to care for her toddler. Orr offered to take in the 1-year-old while her mother went to the hospital to give birth. Two months later, the little girl is still in Orr’s care.

“Nobody has room to take a nine-month pregnant woman with a 12-month-old baby. Nobody,” Orr said. “That needs to change. There needs to be safe places for these moms to go where they can let these children just be children.”

After giving birth, the Syrian mother, M., who did not want her name to be used for fear of retaliation in her case, has been unable to find a place to live. Each night, she takes her newborn in search of a place to sleep. Because her baby cries a lot, no one she stays with allows her more than a night or two. 

Orr wishes she could take in M. and her baby, too, mostly to keep the family together, but she can’t. And she knows there are thousands more around Athens like this very family. The solution, she said, has to be bigger than one Canadian mom helping one Syrian refugee mom. 

“Where’s this mom even going to get food to feed her [children]? Where’s she even going to get diapers? Who’s going to help her? That’s a question I think we as a society need to answer.”

Cherilyn Orr, a brain and trauma expert

“Where’s this mom even going to get food to feed her [children]? Where’s she even going to get diapers? Who’s going to help her? That’s a question I think we as a society need to answer,” Orr said. 

A row of container homes are shown with additional sheets and blankets attached to the front.

Containers that house asylum-seekers in the Malakasa refugee camp are small. Many families construct makeshift shelters adjoining their container for storage of belongings and added space.

Credit:

Matt Rogers/The World

On a regular visit with M. and her newborn, Orr learned the baby was not doing well. She asked her friend, a pediatrician in a wealthy Athens neighborhood, to examine the newborn. M. told Dr. Arlene Chung that the baby spits up all the formula and cries nonstop. 

The baby wailed as Dr. Chung examined him and she determined the baby was hungry. She opened a cabinet and pulled out a sample sachet of organic infant formula, mixed it up and in a flash, the baby sucked down the entire bottle. He gave a burp and then fell fast asleep. No spit up, no more crying. 

“He was just hungry,” Dr. Chung said, after completing a thorough examination and finding everything else to be normal. She pulled out about two dozen of the formula samples, every single one she had, and gave them to M. It was a huge relief for this refugee mom, and she left the office with a content baby and a bag full of formula. 

Yet, this organic formula is more expensive than other kinds. On the ride back to the tiny apartment where M. and her baby would sleep for the night, she calculated that maybe, if she watered it down, she'd have a week's worth of food for her baby. 

Then it's back to the cheap stuff he doesn’t tolerate. 

Editor's note: Deepa Fernandes is a Pacific Oaks College Early Childhood reporting fellow, which is funded in part by First 5 LA.

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