Life and death choices of refugee mums this Mother’s Day | ActionAid UK

This Mother's Day the biggest choice I’ll be making will be whether to take mum out for afternoon tea or cook her dinner. But for refugee mothers, caring for their families this week will mean making choices with life or death consequences.

Refugee mum holding her baby on Lesvos
Refugee mum holding her baby on Lesvos

Refugee mums are being forced to make dangerous choices, not out of greed, or stupidity, but because they are fleeing harm and death.

At our mother and baby centres on the island of Lesvos, refugee mothers tell us daily about the horrific choices they face. As we prepare to celebrate mothers and the amazing sacrifices they make every day, it saddens me that refugee mums are being forced to make dangerous choices, not out of greed, or stupidity, but because they are fleeing harm and death.

Here are the five most common ‘choices’ refugee mothers tell us they are making to protect their children.

Flee or be killed by militants

“Our choice was either die or leave”, says mum of two Farzana, who fled the Taliban militants waging war in her hometown in Afghanistan.

Farzana told us: “It was so difficult to bring our children on this journey, but we do not regret it. It’s better to risk dying, than to be killed for certain at home.”

Yunus and sons Mehmet, 4, sons of Farzana and Yunus. Moria Camp

Farzana and her two young sons, four-year-old Mehmet and seven-year-old Mustafa, travelled on foot through Pakistan and Iran, to reach a place of safety.

“We were walking through deep snow. It was so cold and incredibly difficult to walk. The children were crying with the cold."

Leave your home or be bombed

Since September last year, Russian air strikes have killed over 400 Syrian civilians, at least 97 of whom were children. 

Sanaa and her children, 10-year-old Bilal and eight-year-old Mohammed, fled Syria when their house was flattened by bombing.

“We used to have a really nice home, with six bedrooms," Sanaa says, "but it was bombed and totally destroyed. We lost everything but our lives. Thank God we were out buying food when it happened.”

 Sanaa's son Abdul (black hat).  Abdul showing pictures of the bombed out house on mobile phoneMoria Camp

Put your life in the hands of human traffickers or die

Sanaa made the difficult decision to put her life and the lives of her children in the hands of human traffickers in exchange for the promise of safe passage out of Syria.

Like many women before her, Sanaa did not expect that choice would come with violence and extortion. “At one time the smugglers locked us in an empty building and left us there for three days," she told us. "They only brought us food twice the entire time. There was nothing to sleep on and the children were crying. I didn’t know if they would let us out, or leave us there to die.”

Farzana had a similar story to tell: “At one point in the journey, the traffickers left us in a filthy room. My son Mehmet got covered in flea bites. They are all over his body even now because they made him scratch so much. I felt powerless as I had no cream to put on him, no way to ease his suffering."

Bite marks on Mehmet’s arms from being forced to stay in a dirty, flea-ridden place by smugglers.

Give human traffickers your life savings, or stay locked in a dungeon

Human traffickers can be violent, dishonest and have complete control over the people they are smuggling. They often change the terms of agreement, sometimes half way through the journey, holding vulnerable families to ransom with threats of violence or separation.

“After I had paid the traffickers in Syria, they charged me an extra $4,000 (£2,880) to keep my family together on the boat,” says Sanaa.

“My husband worked hard his whole life for our savings, but the traffickers took it all. After that they put us in a dinghy with 50 people, pushed us out sea and abandoned us.”

 Sanaa's son Abdul (black hat).  Abdul showing pictures of the crossing on a mobile phone, Moria Camp

The threat of separation is terrifying for families desperate to stay together.

Farzana told us: “I saw some women who had been torn from their husbands by the traffickers. They have complete power over you. They can take you to a different building or put you in another vehicle or boat. I was terrified the entire time that they would split my family up."

Face abuse and death at the hands of ISIS or begin a new life with nothing

The threat of ISIS (Da’esh) is not lost on the UK public, but not everyone realises that many refugees are fleeing that very same threat.

Life as a woman under Da’esh rule can include being forbidden to go outside, being forced to cover up, and if you don’t abide by these rules, being tied up and whipped.

In some religious minorities in Iraq, women are forced to marry or become sex slaves.

A mother kisses her baby having arrived safely on the beach in Lesvos.

Sanaa tells us her entire home town was taken over by Da’esh. “If we stayed there we would have died”, she says “but now we must begin a new life with nothing. I don’t know what we will do. In Syria my husband had a building company. Can he find work in Europe? Will people want to give him work? I just don’t know.”

The power of a mother's love

These mums - and millions more just like them - are going through appalling experiences, and having to make choices that no mother should have to make for their children. What they all have in common is a fierce, overriding urge to protect their babies, their sons and daughters; to try and keep them safe, to protect them and, above all, to love them. Just like any mother would.

A mother plays with her child in Moria Refugee Camp, Lesvos

Despite refugee children's loss of home and material wealth and possessions, it is the instinctive and unconditional love of their parents that will sustain them and prepare them for the uncertain future ahead of them.

At ActionAid’s mother and baby centres, refugee women are given a space to rest and grieve after their traumatic journeys. They receive hygiene kits for their families and supplies to help them clean their babies.

Help us help mums like Farzana and Sanaa care for their children this Mother's Day