Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Volunteer Conspiracy: making a difference?

I arrived in Thessaloniki to a huge mess. The snow was only about a foot high, but the city was completely paralyzed. And people living in tents or warehouses were suffering, of course, not only from extreme cold but because we couldn't get there to do our work, for about two days. On the third day, the one car we had that was functioning (mine, because I had wisely left it at the bottom of the hill).

We schlepped out to the camp, bearing supplementary food packs (for pregnant, breastfeeding mums or children under two), diapers, and smiles. Our smiles probably looked a bit grim by the time we arrived because on the way, our chains fell off the front tire so we had a little crisis.

The second night I was there, my glasses broke but they were effectively fixed with white electrical tape so I have looked like a bag lady during this whole time, which probably increases my approachability.

We arrived to the news/rumour that the UNCHR was closing the camps, and they started by removing the vulnerable people, including families with pregnant women, babies or children under two. This made the volunteers' jobs much more difficult because we did not know where everyone was, and we did not have "official permission" to visit some of the hotels that people had been relocated to. Apparently. 

More volunteers kept arriving. The apartment became full of wonderful people, all willing and able to lend a hand where it was needed. I lived with thirteen volunteers at different times during my stay in Thessaloniki and worked with six coordinators of various types.

I would like to share with you what I have seen about the people who give up their jobs, family responsibilities, lives and lovers, homes - for even as short a time as two weeks - to live in a crowded, cold, disorganized small apartment with many other people - just so that they can provide support, care and whatever is needed to the people who are stuck here in Greece after fleeing incomprehensible violence and terror.

I met three other women from Canada. Yay Canadians! I love us for our toughness, kindness, "can do!" attitude, knowledge of chains and snow, sense of humour, sense of responsibility ... political savvy.... 
I met two women from America. One from Portugal, two from Spain, one from Wales, seven from England, and more from Italy, France, and Bahrain...

They brought skills! Knowledge of breastfeeding, midwifery, the art of being a doula (the most valuable skill!), women's health, massage, yoga, Arabic, ... they were dedicated. They were authentic. They were sensitive. 

One was a young soul who loved everyone and everything. She brought joy to everyone she met. One was a wise woman who brought peace. One was a chemist who never complained. One Canadian got grease up to her elbows trying to fix the chains in freezing winds on a Greek highway. One was a firefighter, her friend was a midwife - their friendship made us all feel hope in the world. One was 17 days older than me. Two are from another world, a world full of love, kindness, and amazing food. One is an unbelievable organizer, and makes everything better.... one does African dancing on the balcony... 

We got along! We didn't fight! We cooked together, and cleaned sometimes (sorry Molly) ... I think I was probably the biggest bitch there because I can be an awful bitch. But generally, we laughed, we knit, we took care of each other, we listened.

In the end, it wasn't enough. I have a dream. My dream is just starting to become a reality, and I am gestating it. Many of you know me as a person who gets things done. I am going to get this done. 

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Volunteer Reality Check.

Today was my last day visiting the camps. One of them is officially closing next week. There are around fifty people left. Most of the residents have been relocated to hotels or rented apartments, where they suffer isolation from the community within the camp but of course appreciate the conveniences of modern life that they were used to before the war.

I am going to Athens tomorrow and while I'm there I'll be visiting someone who was relocated there from the north who has a newborn, and I'll be visiting the Amurtel centre for mothers and babies.

In the meantime, I am left with a feeling of not having done nearly enough - which I know is a normal response to a crisis as big and as ugly as this one. So what did I actually do, people? I gave out a lot of food packs and diapers. I met with women who were breastfeeding, and tried to encourage them. I weighed babies. I listened to fetal heart rates and reassured pregnant women. I sat and conversed with a lot of people, using sign language and Google translate. I made a difference for a few people I met. I provided continuous prenatal care for a couple of women. Oh, and yesterday I met with a woman who really wanted a nightgown to wear after she gave birth, so we went shopping. We bought a couple of pyjama sets and a few other bits and bobs. It was fun, and gave her a lot of pleasure. Instead of being given something that was old and probably the wrong size, she chose what she wanted and although I paid, I could have been her mother, so it didn't seem so bad.

The maternity care system here is brutal and backwards. Arabic or Kurdish speaking women go into the hospital and often are not allowed to bring anyone in with them. Cesarean section rate is ridiculous.

Will talk more about that in a future post, and about what I am going to do about it, with YOUR help.

But for now, I am just devastated by the level of disorganization and egotism that is apparently rampant amongst the organizations that are here to provide care. The disorganization starts at the top, to wit a screaming match between the UNHCR officials and the military about what day the camp would close.

I understand, I do. We are talking about tens of thousands of people, no money, closed borders, an infrastructure that is on its knees, yes I understand.

But I've heard stories, consistent ones, about disorganization and chaos reigning supreme in the smaller organizations as well, and that, to me, is unacceptable. Are you proud that your organization has 50 volunteers? Because it makes you look like a saviour? Even if each volunteer hands one banana to a refugee every day? And the so-called refugees don't want your crummy banana anyway?

I know what the women and families I met wanted from me. They wanted me to provide good, quality midwifery care. They wanted to see me every week. They wanted me to be able to visit them wherever they lived, whether or not my organization had permission. They wanted me to help them have the baby, to be with them in labor and birth. They wanted care that was not judgemental, no rolling of the eyes when they mentioned circumcising their baby boys.

So, people, I'm working on it. I have a plan. Please keep on supporting me, I'm going to tell you about my plan soon soon. Inshallah.

In the meanwhile, here are some images from the past few weeks that will give you a sense of what I've been seeing.

I'm With Syria

Home for many until Jan 2017

No diaper donations needed!

Warehouse of donated stuff

Look Closely

Handprints on the wall

View of the camp

MotherBaby Tent

School and Playing Field at Camp

Elpida - Charter School of Refugee Camps

Fireside seating

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Thanks to Zed

My gratitude alphabet is coming to an end. It started last year when I wrenched my back carrying too many packages over the slippery icy sidewalk, and I was angry at the world. A friend suggested I start a gratitude process to help my back. The back was sorted within a week but my alphabet continued.

Today I am grateful for endings. I'm happy that life is full of changes, and that I have had a pretty amazing ride so far. But I know I wouldn't be where I am today if I hadn't given up on some big projects that I've loved in the past.

But, as always, endings are always embedded in beginnings and vice versa. And I am very, very grateful that some things in my life have remained constant and steady.

If I hadn't moved forward and stepped down from leading MBC, I wouldn't have had the time to do some of the interesting projects I've been able to participate in since the summer: being more involved in my cafe, running more (I say this in a guilty voice because I haven't run much here in Greece), coming to Greece to lend a hand with the asylum seekers here, and stuff like that...

So now what?

Just joking with my co-volunteers about the ending of my gratefulness alphabet - now I can be an absolute asshole for the rest of my life! No, endings aren't like that, actually. Stuff just seems to go on forever, really. I mean, there are always ripples from past experiences and actions. And even when the real ending happens, when someone dies, of course we have memories of that person.

So my time in Greece is almost over for now and I am filled with different emotions: sadness, gratefulness, love, disgust, regret, joy, anger... and my alphabet continues.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Day by Day

"So what are you actually DOING over there? It's amazing you're there, but..."

A valid question. Some days I feel I am not doing anything at all. One of the first days I was here, my glasses broke (actually snapped!) and I haven't been able to replace them here, so I am feeling a little self-conscious.

What am I actually doing here in northern Greece, supposedly volunteering with refugees? First of all, most of the people moving through Greece in the hope of finding a country that will accept them are not official "refugees", but rather "asylum seekers".  This term seems even more precarious to me, and pretty much appears to be someone who has very few of the rights we take for granted.

I live in a small apartment with nine other women. Actually, eleven. Or is it ten? The numbers change all the time. Most of us are volunteers, but some of us are coordinating this huge venture we are involved in.

In the evening, we make bags of supplies for the mothers we are seeing the following day. Food, diapers, and newborn packs for the very pregnant mothers.

In the morning, we leave the apartment and go to visit mothers - either pregnant women, breastfeeding, or both, or women with children under two. Our mandate is to be sure that mothers are effectively feeding their babies. That's the simple story.

What's the rest of the story? What am I doing? I am providing prenatal care, sometimes. I'm weighing babies. I'm giving breastfeeding information and support. I'm looking at various people's ailments. I drive a lot.

I drive a lot because the people that were located in the camps have been relocated by the UNHCR to hotels and apartment buildings all over Greece. The motive was great: it has been very cold here and people were freezing.

Lovely olive tress, but if you were a city person, from a beautiful big old city like Damascus or Aleppo, how would you want to be relocated to a hotel here in the middle of nowhere, away from any community that you had formerly created in the camp - even though the camp is horrible - and possibly away from the people in your family? It's such a difficult situation - and every single person involved is doing the very best they can possibly do. I went to a building today where some families had been settled. A few days ago, it was a mud pool. Today, there were walkways set up with scaffolding, and a gravel road was being put down.

I spend some of my time in camps. These are housed in abandoned warehouses, with rows and rows of tents inside them. Heating, electricity and wifi are provided. Many dedicated volunteers help to provide health care, activities for the children, food, clothing and support for the people living there.

There are two interesting housing projects I have visited. One of them has been made real by a group of people from the UK, who have bought an apartment complex and created a space for families to live. They have named their project "Filoxenia", which means "generosity of spirit". This is a new project and is constantly changing and growing, which houses mostly young families and their children.

The least depressing place I have visited is called "Elpida". This is an abandoned factory that was bought by two philanthropists from North America (an American and a Canadian). It has been rebuilt to house families, and many volunteers help to create community by providing health care, education, activities, communal spaces and a place to belong.


But let's remember that all of these great initiatives are just band-aid measures, and the real answers lie with the governments that need to decide what to do about this huge crisis. Every single person I have met, from the lovely young woman who bathes babies to the very young mother living in a hotel with her tiny baby, to the important military-looking people at the camps, they are all doing their best. Tomorrow, I'll be going to a camp and then visiting a pregnant mother who has been relocated to a beautiful apartment she shares with ten other people, who told me that she will be moved again within the month.

I hope I can make a little difference to someone.

Sunday, January 22, 2017


Imagine you're a professional with a pregnant wife, children and your mother, and you find yourself running through a foreign country, getting captured, and being sent back to where you started from,

which is also a foreign country.

Imagine you're a barber and you finally find yourself in a community, even though its made of tents in a factory, so you set up your barbershop, and then you have to close because everyone is being relocated.

Imagine you have five children under six and you are living in a tent and you're the only adult because the other adults fleeing with you ended up in different places, and a volunteer from elsewhere comes and sets up a tent with a heater and warm water and bathtubs.

Imagine you have to leave your home, your country which isn't perfect but at least it's your country, and you don't think you can ever go back because it's been destroyed so completely, and you know a lot of people think you're a terrorist but all you really want to do is have babies, have a big house with a garden, get a job, maybe have a dog, and eat well.

Imagine - yes, you! Imagine you had to move from your nice arm house into a tent in a warehouse. Imagine when you get up to pee in the night you had to go outside, here:

Imagine you love to create good food, and you can do it anywhere, even in a refugee camp.

Imagine your heart got broken every few minutes and then fixed again and then broken again and then fixed again. This is what it's like. I am hearing terrible, awful stories. I attend lovely pregnant mums and see beautiful newborns and young children. I see the look on a teenager's face when she hears her baby's heartbeat for the first time. I see regular people leaving their jobs and families to come and help out for a week or two, or a month or two. I see pictures of untold horror. I see the love in peoples' hearts.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Embrace the Chaos

Rumor is, that because of the extreme cold. it has been decided that the people living in tents on the islands (yes they are still arriving to the islands, on boats, and yes it is bloody cold here) should be moved to the camps here in northern Greece that have been set up with tents, some electricity, some water, some heating...

So that means that the people living in the camps now are being moved to more stable accommodation - hotels and apartments that are either empty because of the season, or because they're just empty, or because they're condemned.

Which is great news. But because of the way the bigger bureaucratic wheels turn, there are some hurdles that us people on the ground have to jump over so that we can continue to provide care for the people who are counting on us.

First, we often don't know where people are. They themselves get a call one evening and the bus arrives the next day to take them elsewhere. It is most peoples' plan/dream to end up reunited with their families in a country where they have the legal right to work, go to school, and live a normal life. And it is most peoples' final goal to be reunited with their families back in the home country that they love. In the meantime, it is their short term goal to have a life that is reasonably human: to have their children with them, to have a warm place to live, food and the means to cook it, a toilet that works, somewhere to wash yourself, a sheltered place to sleep. These simple necessities have been denied tens of thousands - hundreds of thousands, actually millions of people worldwide, and many of the people stranded in Greece now are unfortunately without some of these basic human needs. So when they get that call that they will be moved to a hotel or an apartment they are happy to leave the tent ...

Which leads us to the next downside. Actually, two. First, the hotels/apartments aren't always very nice. Today I went to an absolutely lovely apartment where three families were living. One of those families had moved from an awful "Black Hole" in a condemned building where water was literally running down the walls.

Two, the communities and friendships that have been formed over the weeks and months living in the camps are broken when people get moved to different places in different places, sometimes in different areas of Greece altogether. I've spoken to several people who had created work for themselves in the camps who found themselves isolated in their new locations.

No one really knows what is happening from day to day. I saw an official report today that quoted the number of people living in a certain camp, as of Jan 18, 2017, and I know it is a wrong number because I was in that very camp today and there are only a few families left. So, the official people don't know. The smaller NGOs don't know. The people living in the camps don't know, and us volunteers on the ground? We know even less than anyone else.

Except - what we DO know, is that when we meet a person: a woman, a child, a man, we do what we can to make a difference. We don't ever know what that difference will be, or even if there WILL be a difference, but we try our best.

I'm not usually one for the speakings of saints, but here is a quote from someone who was born just north of where I am now.

"We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop." Mother Teresa

I am a tiny drop in this huge ocean of sadness and despair. I have done prenatal visits: taken blood pressure, felt bellies, listened to baby's heart tones. I've conversed and encouraged using my hands, my heart, and google translate. I've visited some mothers with babies - mostly healthy, a couple of babies who are not doing so well, and I've tried to encourage and support. I've listened to people's stories, about family members far away, about war and bombs, about good news and bad.

What did I do this week? I drive from place to place, visiting mothers. Today I visited two pregnant mothers and then I went to the camp. Yesterday, I did groceries for the mother baby food packs and went to a meeting. The day before that, more prenatal and postpartum visits. Tomorrow, I may go to visit a newborn and her mother. Or organize a women's group in the camp. Then I might drive further north to visit some other people who have been moved to a hotel. Who knows what each day will bring.

All I know is, I am here to be whatever drop I am supposed to be, to help spread kindness in a world that is full of hatred, and to make a place where babies can come into this world with smiles on their little faces.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

A small drop in a huge ocean

There is so much to say! 

The work I do with pregnant women and with mothers and babies remains the same, whether I am in a fancy shmancy house in a rich suburb, or in a small room with no electricity, no heat, and water pouring down the walls. Mothers are mothers, and most pregnant women have similar concerns and worries, at least in terms of the coming labor and birth.

That's where the similarity ends. None of the women I have spoken to here in northern Greece want to give birth or raise their children in the situation they find themselves in. These families are people like you: back home, they are nurses, teachers, University professors, artists. They are the ones who managed to get out: a poor unemployed man and his family wouldn't have been able to pay for the treacherous voyage across to southern Europe.

I won't post pictures of the people I am meeting here. They have already been stripped of so much of their dignity. Living in a tent or a crowded room, being given rations of food, using communal bathrooms, wearing second hand donated clothing, being moved from place to place at the whim of the authorities ... having people take pictures of you and asking you personal questions, it's too much. 

So I'm posting pictures of snowmen, which shouldn't be living here in Greece - they belong in Canada. And pictures of the stray dogs that roam everywhere, through the city, around the camps, in the fields behind the buildings. This dog we met outside Sindos camp, it had been hit by a car so its back legs didn't work so well.

The camp is housed in a huge abandoned industrial warehouse, with many of the windows broken. The UN tents line the warehouse. Clothes are hanging outside the tents. Children run around and play, some of them ride bicycles, others climb on dangerous-looking objects that line the walls. There are painted handprints on several of the inside and outside walls.

Across the road, there is another warehouse where the supplies and food are kept. The camps are maintained by the military, so there is always a sense that you are being watched.

The smell in the warehouses is pretty overpowering at times. they are heated, so there's a strong smell of fuel. There's the smell of too many people living together for too long in small spaces. There's the smell of coldness, dampness and loneliness. There's the constant smell of cigarettes, because most of the men smoke here. 

Sounds? Children laughing or crying, dogs barking, people talking.

Inside the mother baby tent, we distribute diapers, food packs and essential items for mothers with children under two. Mothers who are pregnant or who need assistance feeding their babies are visited individually.

We are planning on starting up some activities for the women who live in the camp, so that they can have a few minutes to relax, having a foot rub, doing a few yoga stretches, learning about some aspect of motherbaby health.

This dog was lying outside another camp which is also very strictly controlled, but is easier to live. The people living there have rooms, communal spaces, and there are classes and activities organized every day.

We were sitting waiting the other day for our colleagues to finish their appointment. Before we knew it, we were having an impromptu chocolate eating and Arabic lesson session. Ten women - four English speakers, six Arabic speaker, and one woman who spoke both, got together and made jokes about everything and laughed at each other, while the kids played outside and the tiny kids jumped around and got yelled at. Life goes on.

If you feel tiny, if you feel like there's nothing you can do, look around you and find some way that you can help. Small things: if you're in Canada, make friends with a Syrian family who lives near you. If you're anywhere, donate money to any charity that appeals to you. If you are active in politics or you feel you can make a difference, make it! If you have any skills at all that you can share - health related, cooking, teaching a language, TRANSLATING from Arabic, sorting stuff in a warehouse, watching the coast off Lesbos for boats, then come to Greece and start volunteering!

I'm feeling very tiny much of the time. I want so much to help - the woman whose family lives in four different countries, the one who has lost many members of her family, the one who never wanted to give birth in a tent, the one whose husband is in a different camp ... and all I can do is care for those who I am lucky enough to meet, smile at the others, and be very, very grateful for what I have.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Day One, two, three

Everything here in northern Greece has been slowed down incredibly because of the snow. Of course, being from Montreal, I can laugh at the 6-8 inches we have here, but the fact is that many of the roads were closed on Tuesday, and my car has been sitting at the bottom of the hill so that we could be sure of having transportation, even if we have to trudge through the snow and ice to get there.

Monday I arrived:

Tuesday I got settled. Bought some groceries for myself, and a hot water bottle! I froze in my bed on Monday night and thought about the people living in tents or on the street. I had to park my car at the bottom of the hill and walk up with the groceries ... then later I walked back down with another Canadian volunteer to get chains for my tires. No snow tires here! 

Wednesday we went to visit a family with a newborn. Lovely family, we spoke at length with the neighbours, listening to their heart-wrenching stories. 

There was a field, dogs running, birds swooping down onto the snow, kids running and playing.
A child rolled around on the floor playing a noisy game on the phone. Her parents kept reminding her to turn down the volume. Sound familiar? 
A man was building a snow sculpture on the wall of the building. Maybe he taught art at the university before he was pushed into this life, or maybe he was a graphic designer in an advertising company.

You have to realize that the people - "refugees" or whatever labels you use - they are people like you: they have lives, families, kids, phones, tablets, worries, ... did YOU ever imagine you would be living in a tent? Neither did they.

Today we will be distributing food and necessities to other families, and visiting prenatal and postpartum mothers. It's a beautiful day.

"What can I do?" We are all asking ourselves. You can volunteer:  check out this link if you have free time and energy: http://www.greecevol.info/index.php

You can donate money: have a look, see what you want to support. There are organizations that work with every different sector of the population: children, mothers and babies, housing, employment...health ... 
You can get political. The borders are closed. People are stuck in the southern European countries with no work and no status. Their families have been torn apart. The political realities seem unchangeable and too complicated for normal people like us to change. Perhaps this is true. Then do your part to change the small things. Support the refugees in your country and make them feel at home. 

We are not made of snow and ice. Together, we can change the world.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Get It Done

I have to tell you one more time how I love to run. 

I was running through the Rockies in my teens, then I gave it up for a while. When I started again, a few years ago, I realized that the practice of running, for me, teaches me about life, and about discipline.

What do you do when you're a runner? You run! Sometimes you don't want to. Sometimes you're tired, or your foot hurts, you have a headache, you didn't sleep well, you're busy. But running means running, and it means that you actually have to get your running clothes and shoes on and go and do it. And when you do, you feel better. Usually.

So, now I'm sitting in Frankfurt Airport, after an endless trudge through the Terminal. Why am I here?

I'm here because I decided less than a month ago to head to northern Greece to help out the mothers and babies that are there living in camps while the world decides where they can go. I'm also here because of incredible generosity on the part of people I know and love, and people I don't know (yet). 

I'm here because being a runner has taught me that you just have to get it done. See something that needs doing? Figure it out.

I'm not sure what I will encounter during my three weeks in Greece. I'm waiting for my plane to Thessaloniki now, and I'm prepared to work hard from the time I arrive. I'll be blogging and sending you all news and experiences from my trip. I know it's cold, very cold, in northern Greece, so I will be trying to stay warm and to help the mothers and babies to stay warm. I will probably be using some funds towards that goal, buying warm clothes perhaps, blankets, or extra food. I am leaping into the unknown, in a way, except that I know my work and how to support new families. That's the constant, just like your breath or the feeling of your body when you're pushing your limits.

For now, it's one step at a time. 

I am still accepting donations to my campaign. The funds will be used for buying supplies on the ground in Greece; to donate to the organizations that are working with mothers and babies in Greece, and possibly to fund another trip in a few months.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

A Drop in the Ocean

I got to "Y" in my gratefulness alphabet that I started several months ago.

Today, I don't have to ask "why" when it comes to being grateful - I can see it in front of me, in so many ways.

It's so humbling to realize that people are behind me, supporting my project, wanting to spread the word, the word that people CAN do something, that we CAN help, even if its just a drop in the ocean.

About two weeks ago, I decided I would go to Greece to assist the (mostly Syrian) mothers and babies who are living this cold winter in a foreign country, with very little of the things we take for granted: shelter, food, heat ... there are families living in borrowed housing in Athens, or on the street, and there are tens of thousands of people living in camps in the north of Greece, waiting for permission to move north so that they can start the difficult process of rebuilding their lives.

I started a campaign to raise funds. I had no idea I knew so many generous people! I reached my original goal in eight days! I am still accepting funds, because I now know that I may need to buy supplies when I am there, and if I have money left over I will be donating it to the organizations I will be working with.

I have bought my ticket, and I'll be spending some extra cash on excess baggage. I'm taking newborn diapers, underwear, and a few extras to distribute.

One of my young friends is SEWING UNDERWEAR for me to bring - that is one of the clothing staples that people are in great need of.
A woman came in to the cafe today, with a huge bag of new underwear her husband donated from his store.

Everyone is giving, whether it's money, love or things. I am so grateful to you all! When I'm there, on Monday, I will be working hard to make sure that mothers and babies get the care that they need, but I will keep you in my heart and I will send updates every day.