How UNHCR and NGOs Can Stop Failing Women Refugees in Greece

Whether you are part of a United Nations agency like the UN High Commission for Refugees, work with a non-governmental organization, or simply volunteer your services in a refugee setting in Greece, the challenges can be formidable. Refugees continue to pour into the country and meeting their basic needs can seem overwhelming, no matter how seasoned an individual or organization may be.

As a recent volunteer in Thessaloniki and at the Nea Kavala Refugee Camp north of the city, and as a former health communication specialist working internationally, I understand how difficult providing essential services can be. I also know how hard it is for organizations to collaborate and cooperate free of the politics of development in an atmosphere of crisis management.

Still, my recent experience suggests that more can be done to alleviate the suffering of refugees and to support them in practical, compassionate ways that don’t demand dollars so much as they call for sensitive and creative approaches to the demands that displacement entail.

Because I work in women’s health as an educator, advocate and doula, there are five specific ways, in my view, to improve services and outcomes for pregnant (and post-partum) women refugees in Greece.

Assess, Don’t Assume. A young pregnant Syrian woman I spent time with in the city had been complaining of vaginal pain and discharge. Assumptions about the source of the problem flew fast and furious among people involved with her care via What’s App. “Her husband is forcing her to have frequent sex,” one said. “She doesn’t want to have sex with him so she’s using that as an excuse,” another posited. However, in my private, supportive conversations with her on Google Translate, it became clear that she and her husband had a loving relationship and were not engaging in sex because of her problem. My colleague, a physician, who thought the woman might have vaginal thrush, provided medication until she could be assessed medically. Subsequent lab results revealed that she did, indeed, have a vaginal infection that was successfully treated.

Ban Boredom, Diminish Despair. The most common mental health problem I encountered in the camps was boredom, a potentially disastrous chronic condition. Boredom affected everyone in the camp but its effects were dramatically obvious in pregnant women who were tired, poorly nourished, and predisposed to depression, sometimes because their pregnancy was unplanned. A creative solution? Many of the refugees (pregnant or not; female and male) had jobs and careers before they were forced to leave their countries. Some were teachers, translators, seamstresses, carpenters. Why not offer them dignified work in the camp, where children received no schooling, NGO workers and volunteers were desperate for translators, and many women would have enjoyed learning how to sew, knit or crochet. Requirement? Organization, not money.

Check Your Culture at the Door. One day I received a message from an organizer advising that I “foster independence” in one of the pregnant women I was seeing. This woman was from a Muslim country she’d been forced to abandon, a country where women have no autonomy. She was in a traditional marriage with no decision-making power. She had no family, friends or other support system nearby. She did not speak the local language. She was not familiar with the city where she now lived. What, I wondered, did “independence” look like in this context? The advice I received smacked of western values and privilege while showing no understanding of the cultural norms with which this woman lived. It was useless, and frankly, irritating.

Promote & Provide, Don’t Pontificate. A woman I met from Congo had a horrific but not atypical story. She’d been trafficked by one after another man to one country after another resulting in violent prostitution that had left physical and emotional scars. She had managed to escape, making her way to Greece. Now she had a new partner in the camp. What she didn’t have was contraception. She waited with baited breath for her period each month, and continued to be tested for HIV. This story speaks volumes about the need for education about birth control and safe sex. It also shouts, “Condoms!” Why, I wondered with frustration, weren’t such classes made available by one of the ubiquitous NGOs that dropped off personnel and volunteers at the camp gate every morning? Why was UNHCR failing to provide condoms — at arrival, in the bathrooms, upon request?

Offer Proactive Follow Up. Pregnant women who need monitoring or who should receive regular prenatal care must walk miles to take the bus to a city where medical care is available. Exhausted from carrying water to their accommodations several times a day, from walking long distances to the latrines, from taking care of other children, from trying to keep themselves, their families and their clothes clean by washing in buckets, by not having enough nutritional food, many simply give up.

Why not, in cooperation with an NGO, provide a van once or twice a week to transport pregnant women to the chain grocery store or the bus stop? Why not collaborate with the grocery store chain so that a van with nutritional staples comes to the camp gate at least weekly. (This would require an officer to keep order but the gate police appear to not be doing much anyway.) Perhaps, the large grocery chain could provide simple nutritional supplements like almonds, dates and oranges to pregnant women in the camp — something an NGO was doing until it disappeared one day, fueling the distrust born of such “easy come, easy go” practices that foster distrust toward agencies.

Similarly, post-partum and breastfeeding women who have problems (including depression) and who are exhausted, could use a little support. Routine post-natal care is not an extravagance, it is an essential part of reproductive health care for childbearing women. It isn’t asking too much, and it could save precious resources like time, effort and money.

These suggestions are relatively simple to implement. They go a long way toward humanizing the refugee experience. They make refugee assistance something to be proud of. Worth a try, wouldn’t you say?

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Elayne Clift, a writer and retired academic, worked internationally on behalf of women and their families for over three decades. She lives in Saxtons River, Vt. (www.elayne-clift.com)

Elayne Clift is an award-winning writer, journalist, lecturer and workshop leader. She has worked internationally in health communications & gender issues.