Reflections from a volunteer

During my time in Greece, I worked for CHEERing, a non-profit in Athens operating in refugee camps and shelters, focused on direct breastfeeding support and other preventive health care measures for refugee families, as well as training for other NGOs.  It has been difficult to answer the common question, “How was it??” asked on my return to the States.  I have often gone with a simple list of adjectives like, “extremely inspiring, hard, great.”  But no list of words could adequately describe my experiences.  “Extremely inspiring” does not illustrate the countless people, committed to mitigating the suffering and challenges of so many refugees and migrants living in the Athens area, with and from whom I had the privilege of working and learning.  “Hard” does not portray the families of six, living in metal shipping containers, who told me of the countless number of cockroaches they had to flick off the wall in the middle of the night. 

I had the privilege of meeting with new mothers each week to track their infants’ growth and provide education on nutrition, development, and their relation to the countless benefits of breastfeeding.  I was also lucky enough to get to use my First Aid qualifications to develop and facilitate “Basic First Aid Trainings” for camp residents. The circumstances of what has been called the “refugee crisis” in Greece are ones that no one should have to live through, and it is difficult to know what to do whether one is a resident of Skaramagas Camp who needs urgent medical care at 2AM, one is working for an NGO volunteering in the area, or one is a Research Assistant for a healthcare organization dedicated to maternal child health and nutrition halfway across the world (as I am during the other eleven months of the year). Given the current state of the country and world, I often contemplate whether it makes more sense to try to change the status quo systemically, or to try to mitigate the vicious effects for those most affected on an individual basis.

As incredible as my time in Greece was, returning to my office desk in the States brought with it a feeling of helplessness.  But after a month of working with individuals in Greece, this feeling has now fused with simultaneous feelings of passion and motivation.  My yearning to keep working and questioning has been strengthened by CHEERing’s empowerment of pregnant women and mothers with the information to ensure their babies stay healthy, and by experiences like squeezing the hand of a woman whose water had just broken, as we planned for a translator to accompany her to the nearby hospital known for its sky-high Caesarean rates to help her advocate for the vaginal delivery she so wanted.  So, I guess when people ask me, “How was it??,” I should just answer that I got to spend the last month reassuring women of what wonderful mothers they are.  That, in these seemingly helpless and absurd times, they are doing everything right.

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