On the 21st January 2013 my life changed forever, it was the day I found out I was going to be a parent. It was the day my life changed beyond recognition, because from that day onward I saw the world through a new lens.
Most of the time that lens is filled with joy and magic, the day he came into the world, every first we experienced, watching him explore his surroundings.
But it also gave me a burden something no one prepared me for, the empathy you feel for parents who are suffering, a pain I had never experienced for children I don’t know who I see suffering. This came to a head the day I saw the young Syrian boy in the arms of the Turkish police officer after drowning in the sea trying to cross to Europe – I couldn’t get his lifeless body out of my head and I felt like I had to do something. I asked my mum why is this affecting me so much and her response was simple “because you are a mother now”.
From that day on my parenting style shifted, i’ve always followed a gentle parenting approach but I became a little less worried about him getting into bad habits of sleeping in our bed and when he needed his face stroked to sleep, I obliged because the thought of not being able to keep him safe and secure was just too unbearable.
Tonight i’ve been home from Lesvos for 10 nights and tonight was the night my heart broke for every single parent who is currently seeking a safer place to live and bring their children up. Because tonight I lay stroking my sons face and he wrapped his arms around my neck and cuddled me and then placed my hand back on his cheek with his comforter nudging me to stroke his face. As he gently fell into a safe slumber it hit me, we are so lucky he is safe and I am able to give him the security he needs and then I thought back to every horrifying situation I witnessed between Slovenia and Lesvos, I thought of every image i’ve seen other volunteers post of families, children and people on their journey to find their own safety and security. I closed his bedroom door and I silently sobbed, the kind of sobbing that you can’t control, the one where your heart is heavy and it hurts, it hurts so much.
I cried for the families forced to leave their beloved homes because they are persecuted, unsafe, not allowed to live the life they want to live – war. It is incomprehensible for people like us to really imagine what this is like.
What has puzzled me and even after all the time i’ve spent with refugees is how do the parents cope? If you had one bag and 3 children what would you put in it? I can’t go to my in-laws without a car full of things I deem essential for a weekend. How many nappies can you realistically carry? milk? sterilizing equipment? changes of clothes? what if your baby is weaning age? What do you feed them? how do you amuse them and keep them quiet when you’re being smuggled out of a country? How do you explain to them there is no food? So many questons…and i’m not entirely sure I ever really answered the question of how do they cope I only managed a glimpse of their life.
I spent a lot of my time at Moria in the women and children’s tent, the tent was basically two large camping tents side by side roped off to create a queue. One side was filled with boxes marked womens tops, children’s outerwear etc. and the other had a bit of everything and some make shift drawers and a little more space. It looked like chaos and it was, you can’t make a decent system out of boxes that have unknown quantities of varying quality items.
This tent gave me some of the biggest highs of my trip, knowing how many people we helped made it worth it. My favourite memory is of a little girl she came with a family of children who were all soaked through, I lifted her up and sat her on the chair she was special because she had a twinkle in her eye, she wasn’t withdrawn and quiet like so many of the children I saw, she was cheeky. As we stripped her down we rifled through one of my favourite bags it was a bag full of really well labelled clothes, each bag had 3 or 4 outfits for that size child. I pulled out a top, jumper, some legging and a coat, I replaced her socks and she proudly showed me her pink nail polish – we didn’t need to speak the same language for me to communicate how impressed I was – she was so happy, as I chucked her wet clothes to one side and started to pull the clothes we didn’t need back into some order my hand landed on denim and pink ra ra skirt – my first thought was why on earth would someone donate something so impractical and then I looked up – I could see the sparkle in her eye, I gestured to the skirt and she nodded energetically. I stood her up on the stall and we slipped the skirt over her layers of clothes – it fitted perfectly and she clapped and the queue of women and children waiting clapped – she was so happy – my heart melted.
Sadly a lot of the time I spent in the tent wasn’t like this – a lot of the time was spent being frustrated that there wasn’t enough women’s coats, or enough shoes to fit the women. Disappointed faces when I offered up Western style jeans and hoodies, not tops that covered the ladies more appropriately. I will never forget the larger Arabic women who I think might have been from Northern Africa who were soaked through but many of the clothes we could lay our hands on didn’t fit, my heart sank when we cobbled clothes together for them but they still had to put their drenched robes back on over the top – knowing they would be freezing cold.
I will never forget the two sisters from Afghanistan who were very tall and when we invited them into the tent to have some privacy to rummage and change they had nothing under their trenchcoats apart from bras, I don’t know whether they were advised to take their wet clothes off and they’d get more but they were frozen through. They were so desperate to pick clothes that would protect their dignity as they were travelling with their older sister and her daughter and no men. They’d made friends with another family who were looking out for them but they were so vulnerable and so terrified, I remember pulling out some of the really nice vests i’d found and gave them to them. We layered them up but they insisted on keeping their wet coats because of their length. I wish i’d gotten their details because i’d love to know if they are ok and whether they have made it to their intended destination.
But the family that are etched in my mind forever is the family of women who had 5 children with them all of them drenched and when they arrived at the tent chaos ensued. Everyone of the children all under 5 was soaked through, everyone had soiled themselves and had been in these dirty nappies a long time. But what was remarkable to me as a mother was that not one of them cried. They were frozen in fear. It was the one moment when I really didn’t think I knew what to do, to cope, where to start. It was night and it was cold and it was raining we couldn’t just strip the kids off and then dig about for clothes – through an interpreter we agreed one mum would come into the tent with 2 kids at a time and get them sorted. They needed everything – I wasn’t prepared for the sores they had on the little bums from being in soiled nappies. Luckily one of the things I stocked up on was the good bum cream from the UK we also had pacifiers and other bits and bobs in our car. I ran out and brought it all back, one of the mum’s was begging for a pacifier I was able to give her two brand new ones. We handed over the cream, for most of the children a clean nappy and some cream was enough but one little boy was screaming – he was clearly in pain, he was so sore and there was nothing we could do. We explained there was a medical tent the mother seemed to understand and continued to work through the wet children. The last child was almost missed he was sat so quietly he was petrified and I remember thinking – what must he have just been through to be stunned into silence. In that time when I stood helplessly offering up a pair of shoes or a coat I just kept thinking about my own son, how much I missed him and how lucky we are to have the life we have and not this.
The silence of these children was in direct contrast with the noise in a Greek coffee shop the following day, screaming children everywhere, chatting, talking, laughing, cooing, hanging out with their parents on a Saturday morning for brunch. The sound you’d expect to hear from children and sound so sorely missing from these little lives.
At least in the clothing tent, I felt like I was making a difference. Managing the registration line was a lot more desperate, in the line you would see a lot more of the families who are just waiting in line under the elements. As night drew in a number of us would look for the vulnerable cases to bring into the building, but once it was full those families not so lucky would be left to find a pop up tent.
One night we lined up the next group of numbers, by this point we had started carrying backpacks with a few essential items, I noticed a child with no socks – I went over to pass on some socks and realised the child was wet through, two of the other children were wet through too, it transpired the children had been in their wet clothes from when the boat landed in the early hours of the morning, by my recollection about 14hrs. We handed out what we had and then a couple of us ran down the hill to get some more clothes, a doctor was called and blankets were sent for. Some of the children had high temperatures, the family was pushed through as an emergency and i’d expect they would have been taken care of inside. But it rattled me – these poor parents had sat with their children in wet clothes because they thought they had no choice. They didn’t know there was a tent where they could have got dry clean clothes for their children, what an earth must that feel like as a parent. They didn’t have bags of clean clothes they could switch their kids into.
We heard so many stories of how boats that were overloaded capsized, or bags were thrown over, so what small belongings some of these parents had were lost to the sea. And now they are fully reliant on handouts and hope. Quite honestly I’m ashamed to say I wouldn’t cope…i’ve tried to think are these parents more able to cope because what they’ve already left behind was so hard this is just another step on a long hard journey. Or is it a case of coping because you have to because you do anything for your children.
And so it brings me full circle to the day I chose to get involved and try and make a difference. I’d seen the news and then I had to get my son ready for nursery, choose which coat he’d put on and which pair of shoes.
But I decided I could do something I could make a difference. I have one of the most important jobs in the world – I am a parent and it’s my responsibility to try and make this world we live in a little better for everyone.
Images courtesy of Marina Hickman and Linda C. Fredriksen