The Women’s Tent

The “women’s tent”. The concept seems to be one from a historical novel set in biblical times. Who could honestly ever think that such a thing could exist in our day and age? A space for women? Of course. A women’s tent? No way. Too romanticized, too cliché, too 100 AD. And yet, it did exist, and eventually it flourished. For those people who want to know what I actually did in a refugee camp, working at the women’s tent pretty much sums it up.

The first few hours of my first day at Ritsona I felt a bit lost and was starting to worry that I was on a fool’s errand. I met many people who were there for the long haul, specializing in practical things like humanitarian aid and translation and making a real difference. With my completely impractical “artistic” background (music and graphic design) and the fact that I had two small children (ages 2 and 4) at home who prevented me from staying for very long, I was starting to feel a bit useless. In the end, it turned out to be my two children who had given me the best possible training and a skill set that was not often found in the average volunteer.

Most of the volunteers were “footloose and fancy free” with no kids, or “empty nesters” with grown children of their own. I, on the other hand, had been pregnant twice in the past 5 years, breastfeeding in the past year, had transitioned to solid foods, sleep-trained, toilet-trained, etc. I was all “up to date” on what the current guidelines were for anything pregnancy, baby and toddler related (you would not think there would be a need to be “up to date” since babies have been around since the dawn of time, but they do keep changing all the rules). In short, a perfect fit for the women’s tent.

When I began working at the women’s tent, it was a tent like all the others in the camp, the one at the very end of the row that was left over when the others were distributed. It held the sanitary napkins, the diapers, the underwear, the sunscreen and ‘night’ cream (more on those later) and any supplies that women were mildly embarrased to order from the distribution container because they were too private, frivolous or what have you.

Perhaps the most important aspect at this time was that of the supplemental food for the pregnant and breast feeding women. Shortly before my arrival, other independent volunteers had taken a horrified look at what was passing for a balanced meal at camp (balanced? the only thing balanced was the caterer’s bank account) and immediately realized that it was grossly inadequate for the nutritional needs of pregnant and breastfeeding women. Actually, it was inadequate for everyone, but you have to start somewhere. They compiled lists of who was pregnant, how far along they were, who was breastfeeding and how old the baby was, etc.  Around 10% of the women in camp were pregnant, another 10% breastfeeding, which gave us 40-50 women to feed. With this information we would go out to the supermarket in the morning and choose one vegetable, one fruit and one protein.  Tuna, eggs, yoghurt, cucumbers, tomatoes, apples, bananas and more were on the revolving selection. Protein proved the hardest as pregnant women are not supposed to be eating canned fish more than a few times a week, no one liked beans (“because of the gas” one woman confided), the tinned meat was non halal and eggs had to be pre-cooked the night before, when we were too exhausted to do anything. Yoghurt was by far the most popular choice.

We then would go tent to tent, seeing how the women were doing and handing out the food.  Normally we would have to do several trips to and from the women’s tent, where the food was being held, since there was only so many kilograms of produce one could drag around in the blazing sun. The men would see us coming on the rounds and would pat their tummies and say “me too, I am pregnant too!” Fortunately, one of the most useful terms I happened to know in Arabic was “pot belly”, and when I would smack the proffered tummy and say “Not pregnant, just a pot belly!” there were always roars of laughter.

Less funny was seeing a pregnant woman with two or three other small children and telling her that this was food just for her and the baby inside her, not for her other children, who by that point would all be clamouring for a taste of the cucumber or tomato, having not eaten any vegetables in days. As a mother myself, I knew it would only be a matter of minutes before these would be scarfed down by her kids, and I know I would do exactly the same in this situation, at whatever cost to my own health. What made me really sad was that, while we could always hand out an extra fruit or yoghurt to the moms for their kids, there were so many other children at camp whose mothers weren’t pregnant and who would not be benefitting from this extra treat.

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I can’t stand to look at stock photos of smiling healthy pregnant women surrounded by brightly coloured fruit and vegetable doodles saying “fresh fruits and veggies are key to your baby’s health”. I don’t think that anyone doubts this, most pregnant women, myself included, even crave them. The fact that women in camp live in a fertile mediterranean country and can only be rationed one cucumber and one banana per day breaks my heart.

I was sick the other weekend, a bit of mild tummy upset that had me feeling all miserable and needy. I mostly sat on the sofa and ordered my beloved to bring me herbal teas and bubbly water with lemon, but part of my misery was the thought that while I was unlucky enough to be sick, I was lucky enough that whatever little finicky thing I thought might alleviate my nausea would be intantly brought to me. I know many of the women suffering from morning sickness would ask for lemons and mint, and would have to wait at least until the next day until it appeared. 24 hours is a long time when you are nauseous and all you have to drink is lukewarm water. After several of the women in their early stages of pregnancy asked us for  lemons, we ransacked the tree in the backyard of our air bnb and brought a whole sack of them to camp. Mass chaos promptly ensued since everyone, pregnant or not, wanted some. Kids were walking around sucking on wedges of lemon and everyone was happily squeezing them on their dinners that night.

Women would also come to the tent to discuss their concerns about their own health and that of their babies that they did not deem serious enough to warrant an actual visit to the Red Cross. Or perhaps because we offered a shady spot (unlike the Red Cross waiting “room” which was in the blazing sun) and a sypathetic ear (again, often in short supply at the Red Cross tent). Often, women would come for breast feeding advice as they were worried about the lack of proper nutrients or substance in the food and did not feel that they were producing enough milk. Normally, what they needed above all was a bit of reassurance that all was still well, that the food may well be terrible, but that they were indeed still producing milk. One of my fellow volunteers taught me a wonderful way to help women regain confidence. You ask if you can see how the baby feeds, wait until it has likely had its fill and then ask the mother to detach it. Most of the time, a stream of milk will appear around the baby’s mouth and you can say, “Look! You have so much milk! And your baby looks so healthy, too.” Not the most scientific, but when you don’t share any common language, it was quite effective.

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A pregnant woman in her tent.

It was at one of these sort of visits that we met Gulawi and Şana. Two women came in with their babies, one of them because she was concerned that she had stopped producing enough milk  for her 6 month old, and they other one to offer the first some moral support. They both sat down and started breastfeeding without any apparent problems. We chatted and got to know each other, and I asked the second woman, who had a much smaller baby, how old her baby was. I was expecting her to say 3 or 4 months, based on the baby’s size and the fact that the baby did not seem able to hold up her head. When she said 10 months, I nearly fell over in surprise, and after having two preemies of my own, I am certainly no stranger to smaller than average babies. I asked her if the baby was eating well – mostly to keep the conversation going since most people don’t take kindly to random strangers telling them that their baby doesn’t really look so healthy- and she said that the baby only drank breast milk, that she refused any water, baby cereal or solid food, and had her entire life.  Starting to get increasingly alarmed, I asked if she had other children and she replied that she had four other children, and that they had all started eating solid food at the age of around 6 months. I asked if she had any idea why this one was so reluctant to start and she said that when she was 4 months old she had a bad throat infection and it seemed to hurt her to swallow. After ascertaining that we were all indeed worried about her, we added both mothers on to our list of people requiring supplementary food and got their names and tent numbers.

The next day we stopped by to see Gulawi on our “rounds” with the supplementary food and went in to visit at her tent. We asked if she would mind if we asked the Red Cross doctor to come and have a quick peek at baby Şana, and as luck would (not) have it we got the condescending Spanish doctor who seemed to look down his nose at refugee and volunteer alike. He came in, took a fairly cursory look and assured us that they knew about the case and had everything in hand.  Obviously because of privacy issues, he would not be able to discuss it with us, we should simply understand that he had it all under control. Fuming, my colleague and I went back to the woman’s tent and vented. “Under control!!” How can you look at a baby like that and say that you have it “under control!”

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A baby sleeps

The next time we saw Gulawi she told us that they had been to the hospital in the closest town when they had first arrived, because they had been in the hospital on the Island where they first arrived in Greece and the doctors there had told them that when they came to the mainland that they should immediately take the baby back to the hospital.  Unfortunately, when the local hospital told her that she needed to go with the baby to Athens, an hour away,  for an indefinite stay, she would not go. She told me that she had had no way to even tell her husband and other children where she had gone (neither of them had any mobile phone), no money whatsoever, no clear idea of where Ritsona camp was even located and certainly no way to return! Most likely she had initially thought that it would be a short hospital visit or that she would be leaving the baby at the local hospital and when she was forced into making a quick choice, she opted to keep the family together rather than risking separation.  She told me that the doctors had been very angry at her, and she made a dusting her hands together motion and said that the doctor implied that she had lost her chance. She asked if there was any way I could help her. I looked at Şana lying listlessly on the floor, playing with a piece of plastic wrapper, her complexion looking ever more sallow than it had a few days ago. I said I would see what I could do.

While the decision to take a sick baby to the hospital may seem like a bit of a no-brainer, it is in fact not really “protocol” that an independent volunteer should be taking health care decisions into their own hands. The Red Cross is at camp in order to take care of the residents’ health care, and if every time some one got sick some well meaning soul drove them to the hospital, both the hospital costs (which fall on the Greek government) and the the amount of paperwork required for follow-up would be extortionate.  We discussed it thoroughly, and it was pretty much unanimously agreed that if the baby needed to go to the hospital and the parents wanted us to help them take it, then we would. Forewarned is forearmed, and this time we communicated as much as possible with Gulawi about what to expect, and how to best plan for it. We told her that she should plan for a lengthy stay and she decided that the baby’s father would be the one to go because she needed to stay at camp and take care of her other four children, two of whom were under the age of 5. She said that in a few days they would change places, and that every time a volunteer was going to Athens and could give them a lift, they would change places.

We formed a fairly sombre parade on the way to the hospital. There were 5 of us; Şana, her father, the translator, another volunteer who drove us in her car and myself. We had quite a long wait at the hospital and we passed time playing cards and eating ice cream. Şana’s father, though very pleasant, had clearly never taken care of her before, and at one point she dirtied her diaper and stricken looks were exchanged as it became clear that he had no idea how to change it. I volunteered for the task and when I went to the bathroom and removed her diaper, I saw how the bones in her bum stuck out with not an ounce of padding to be seen I broke down and cried at the hopelessness of the whole situation. When we were finally seen there was quite a lot of action. It turns out that with the many tumultuous events in their lives recently, her parents had forgotten that she was not 10 months old, but rather turning one the next week. What most shocked the medical staff was that she was born at a healthy 4.5 kg, and at one year old, she had fallen to only 4 kg.

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A children’s hospital room in Athens. Photo by Judith Kuenzle

Once she was installed in her room I took her father and the translator to eat something, as it was close to 10:30 p.m.. The other volunteer stayed with Şana and chatted with the mother of the other baby in the room. She was a single refugee mother from Pakistan with 3 children. Her youngest, only a few months old, had been born in Greece and was having health problems. Parents have to stay with their children at the hospital, which meant that her other two children, both under 4, were back in the camp. When asked who was looking after them, she said she didn’t really know, but that she hoped one of the neighbours was.

Şana’s father stayed with her when we left the hospital that night, looking small and frightened as he faced an uncertain future. With only a package of cigarettes, some worry beads and 20 euros that we had left him for food, we promised to return in two days. When I returned it was on my way to the airport.  For two days he had been sleeping in an armchair, unable to communicate with anyone, which meant that he had no idea what that state of his daughter’s health was. He was happy to see a familiar face, and very happy with the mobile phone that we had brought him so that he could talk to his wife and family (even if it meant calling someone in camp and asking them to take their phone to his tent and let his wife use it).

Needless to say, the Red Cross was not so happy that we had intervened. Dr. Condescension told me “this is really too bad, if you had waited another day or two instead of playing the hero, we were just on the verge of arranging an apartment for the whole family”. I told him that they would certainly welcome that and that he should go ahead with it by all means. Somehow, though, it never materialized.

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Looking much better a month after her hospital visit

With all of the stress involved with having the family split up, it was no great surprise that Şana’s time in the hospital was shorter than desired. After 10 days, when her condition started to improve, her mother packed her up and got a ride back with the inexperienced young volunteer who had been sent with supplies. There was still no clear idea with what was wrong with her, but at least the warning bells had been sounded. Back at camp extra effort was made to get her started on solid foods, with Gulawi bringing her into the women’s tent several times a day to have her fed by one particular volunteer that she said “had a special touch”.

In the end, I realized that Sana was considered as “collateral damage”, that if push came to shove, this family of 7 would choose to stay together and possibly lose its smallest member rather than face the risk of being split in half and spending the next few years searching for each other in vain, as has happened to other families. In Europe. In 2016.

 

EPILOGUE: A few months later a fellow volunteer tagged me in a video. It showed a plump baby toddling around the woman’s tent. I absentmindedly looked at it and then went back to work. Seconds later she messaged me “Do you recognize her?! It’s baby Şana!” I had to look at the video another few times to believe it was the same baby. There was no similarly to the sickly, starved looking baby that I knew and this rosy cheeked, glossy haired toddler smiling back from the screen. This video made me more sentimental than any video of my own children ever has and I often watch it and think of her and her family. Perhaps they have moved on, perhaps I will see them next time I volunteer, still in the same tent one year later and no closer to any semblance of normal life.

Afterword: As you can probably imagine, nobody is really called by the names I used here. Friends and neighbours may have swapped names, I may have been inspired by literature, other names I found beautiful were used to describe people I liked, my only goal was not to have pseudonyms that were blatantly un-realistic….

 

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