Can you imagine breastfeeding on a pile of rubbish, surrounded by hundreds of men you’ve never met? Or trying to keep your baby clean, when you only have dirty nappies and no clean water? These are experiences faced daily by refugee mothers arriving on the Greek island of Lesvos, where ActionAid is running special mother and baby centres.

Two-year-old Reihaneh and his mum in ActionAid's mother and baby centre, Lesvos
Two-year-old Reihaneh and her mum in ActionAid's mother and baby centre, Lesvos

Mothers and babies have very specific needs and this is never more evident than during a humanitarian disaster, when it's immensely challenging for women to feed and tend to their vulnerable infants. That's why one of the first services ActionAid provides in crises are mother and baby centres. 

Here, women are given hygiene kits including wipes, soap and nappies, so they can clean their babies - often for the first time after a long journey. They are safe spaces where mothers can breastfeed in private, and, equally importantly, talk and grieve with women who share their experiences.

Providing basic needs for young mothers like Narges

Young mum Narges (below), a refugee from Iran, arrived in Lesvos with her one-year-old baby boy Mohamed and two-year-old daughter Reihaneh. Stranded with no money, she has been coming to ActionAid’s mother and baby centre every day to breastfeed and clean her children.

ActionAid women's space Kara Tepe

Like many refugee women, unable to carry anything but her children on her perilous journey, Narges arrived in Lesvos without so much as a clean nappy. Panicked and in desperate need, Narges was given basic supplies at ActionAid’s mother and baby centre.

"I feel calm now I’m here. It’s friendly and warm," says Narges.

As soon as ActionAid opened its mother and baby centres women flooded in to breastfeed and rest.

Anna, an aid worker who has been running the centres says: "When the mothers arrive here, they are physically exhausted. How can these women feed their children, if they aren't strong enough themselves? But the mothers leave the centre stronger and calmer, and when you help the mothers, the entire family benefits."

Emotional support to recover from horrific experiences

The refugee women passing through our centres are deeply traumatised. Most have fled violent conflicts and experienced dangerous journeys at the hands of human traffickers. Many have lost loved ones and, tragically, some have lost children along the way.

Narges told us, "The traffickers locked us up in a dungeon with 150 people, until we gave them more money."

"We had given them all our money for this journey and now we were scared for our lives and our children’s. When the time came to get on the boat, we saw more than 50 people crammed in a nine metre dinghy. They forced us onto the boat by pointing their guns at us. I was terrified."

ActionAid women's space Moria Camp

ActionAid's cultural mediators, who speak Arabic and Farsi, as well as English and Greek, provide much-needed emotional support to mothers experiencing trauma.

Ditte, a mediator from Denmark says: "What many of the women need is someone to communicate with. They need to feel supported and that they are not alone.

"We answer their questions and they get a chance to feel relaxed and safe. They can also speak with other women who are going through the same thing."

A language people can understand

ActionAid's cultural mediators also roam the refugee camps with information for mothers and their families. They encourage women to come to the centres and get support. Among few people on the island who can speak the same language as the refugees, they bring hope and reassurance to women who feel isolated and scared.

Siba and Anna talk and share stories about Syria, their home country.

Siba (above), a 19-year-old Syrian refugee lit up when she met Anna.

"When I heard Anna speaking Arabic, I let myself go. I could finally relax. She is Syrian too, so it was as if I'd found home again."

Helping women with long-term recovery

ActionAid runs mother and baby centres in emergencies all around the world. I have witnessed first-hand the remarkable impact they can have. Earlier this year in an earthquake survivors' camp in Nepal, I met Shreya (below), eight months pregnant and terrified that her unborn baby had been damaged. Her baby had stopped moving since the earthquake and she had been repeatedly kicked in the stomach, when sleeping in a tent with 200 other survivors.

Only after Shreya spent time in an ActionAid mother and baby centre, where she could rest, wash herself and eat nutritious food, as well as talk with someone about her trauma, did she feel well again. Thankfully, her gorgeous baby daughter Sushreya was born shortly afterwards with no complications.

Shreya Desar, who was 8 months pregnant when the first earthquake shook Nepal on April 25, with her daughter Sushreya. Nepal earthquake 6 months on

The situation in Lesvos is of course very different, but the fundamental needs of mothers and babies remain the same. They are extremely vulnerable during humanitarian disasters and ActionAid’s mother and baby centres provide a desperately-needed lifeline to mothers who just want the best for their children.

As Ditte says: "For the short time they are in the centre, the women regain a piece of their dignity. Even if it’s just for an hour."

Help us continue supporting the most vulnerable mothers and babies affected by disasters around the world by donating to ActionAid.

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