Experiencing Refugee Life in Greece
by Elayne Clift

Writer Elayne Clift, right, with Yusra, a Syrian refugee pregnant with her second child, and her young son.

The call for volunteers posted to http://greecevol.info had my name written all over it. “Doulas Wanted,” it said. I had long wanted to go to Greece to do what I could for refugees there, and my hope was to bring to women refugees my experience as a doula and women’s health advocate. So I contacted the woman in Montreal, also a doula, who had posted the call on behalf of Birth Companions International (BCI), a small organization she had recently founded. Within a matter of months, I was in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, and Polycastro, a small town north of the city where the Nea Kavala Refugee Camp is run by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Luckily, I had enticed a physician friend, Brigitte Dunais from France with whom I’d volunteered in Somaliland in 2011, to join me. Her language skills include fluent Greek, since she lives there part-time, and her medical expertise was bound to be useful. Looking back now, I can’t imagine going there without a companion.

I arrived two days ahead of Brigitte and was blessed with an Airbnb host, Panos, who proved to be a lifesaver. On my first day in the complex city, he agreed to help me find the apartment of the first pregnant woman I was to visit. Without him, I never would have found the place since Google maps were inaccurate and both paper maps and street names were written in miniscule Greek.

Panos and I managed to find Yusra, a Syrian refugee, after I picked up food staples to take to her. A sweet young woman of 19, she was seven months pregnant with her second child. Her husband and father-in-law were part of the family, which had resided in a camp for months before being moved to an apartment in the city while they awaited permanent relocation.

After the usual hospitality gestures, Yusra and I communicated through the translation program on her phone. It was challenging to get consistent information, but it seemed she wasn’t getting much prenatal care, so I was concerned when she reported headaches and fatigue, potential signs of preeclampsia (pregnancy-related high blood pressure).

A few days later Brigitte and I went back to see Yusra, who was complaining of a painful vaginal infection. Brigitte checked her blood pressure, did a urinalysis, and listened to the baby’s heartbeat. All seemed to be well. We set up a follow-up appointment for her and bought medication for her infection. While we were there, a representative of the social service agency that was helping the family arrived because the family had not received their monthly fund allocation provided by UNHCR and their bank account was empty. This is not an unusual situation. There is a great deal of crisis management in working with refugees, we quickly learned, and these people truly live on the edge.

We had two visits that day. The other one was with Aman and her family. Aman and her husband, toddler, and six-month old baby shared an apartment with her husband’s sister-in-law, her toddler, and her husband’s parents. The brother of Aman’s husband was in Germany where the family hoped to reunite with him soon.

A happy Syrian child moves on after years living in refugee camps.

They were a lovely family who had endured a boat crossing and 15 months in a refugee camp, living in a tent during the cold winter. They were gracious, serving us coffee, then mocha frappes, and inviting us to lunch. Happily, there was no obvious need in this close-knit family, who are among the lucky ones with the means to make their way to Europe.

Our work that first day felt worthwhile and good. We had brought not only goods and services but friendship, understanding, and love to people for whom I felt a deep affection. Their feelings for us derived, I think, from their sense of being heard, believed, and helped.

The next day we drove north to Polycastro where we met our next landlord, Veronica. She rents a large, sparsely furnished apartment to another volunteer, an airline stewardess based in Germany who, when she isn’t flying, works in Polycastro independently but who has ties to BCI. The stewardess regularly shares her place with other volunteers.

We first visited a couple from the Congo, Fanny and Arnold, whom we had to meet at the camp gate: since BCI is not formally registered with UNHCR, we couldn’t enter the camp. A young couple, well educated and regal, they were expecting their first child. Fanny, with her twisted curls, which, we were told, take 12 hours to arrange, looked like a queen. Over coffee at the local hotel, they shared their story with us and showed us pictures of the appalling tent conditions they had suffered through during winter on the island of Lesbos before being relocated to Nea Kavala camp.

At the camp, the couple lived in what essentially was a big box, although an improvement over a tent. These rectangular container-like rooms have air-conditioning, a refrigerator, a two-burner stove, and two beds. But the communal toilets and showers are a distance away and unclean. Fanny in particular felt depressed as she tried to cling to the hope that they would eventually settle in a European country “where we can live properly, raise our family, and have a decent life.” Fanny was probably not eating enough, and chronic boredom was a mental health issue for her and others. Mental problems are significant at the camps but are not taken seriously enough by UNHCR or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

After coffee and, I hoped, reassurance, we took Fanny and Arnold into town, bought them groceries, gave them donated baby clothes, and promised another visit soon. Their gratitude made me want to weep.

Then we met Mike Henshaw, an improbable name, and his wife, Dari, from Nigeria. They were expecting their first child and had decided to go to Thessaloniki and stay with friends because Dari cannot tolerate camp conditions. Dari is a teacher and could easily have been kept busy reading to children or tutoring them in the camp but no skills assessment at camp intake is conducted with a view to offering meaningful work in the camp as an antidote to the unrelenting boredom. This drove me crazy because clearly there is more that needs feeding than the body; the soul needs nourishment too. How is it that organizations working here haven’t realized this?

The next day we met Irene and Stephen from Uganda and Ginette from Congo. Irene was four months pregnant. She had miscarried once and was spotting blood and worried. Ginette’s story was heartbreaking. It’s not an uncommon one: promised rescue from Congo by a man who took her to Turkey, she was trafficked into violent prostitution that left her physically and emotionally scarred. She was sold from one trafficker to another, from one country to another. Finally, she escaped and managed to get to Greece on her own. She now has a partner in the camp but no telling if he was “safe.” She had left a 7-year old daughter behind in Congo. You would never expect any of this from such a composed, self-contained woman of 27.

They revealed that conditions in the camp are appalling: all the NGOs have pulled out so the small nutritional supplements Save the Children was giving pregnant women, for example, are now gone. There are no medical personnel in the camp. Refugees must walk miles to get food or to reach the bus that will take them to medical care. Why, I wonder, isn’t UNHCR working with an NGO to provide van transport at least a couple of days a week? Why can’t a food truck be arranged with the local grocery shop that could be brought to the camp gate a few times a week? (This was apparently tried but had resulted in a frenzy and some stealing—a situation that could easily have been remedied if the gate police had simply made people line up.)

These young couples (and women) touched me deeply. They are living indefinitely in terrible conditions, away from their families, their countries and cultures. They have no money, no work, and very little privacy or hope. They fight despair daily, and yet, they are charming, grateful, affectionate, dignified. They smiled, thanked us profusely for a few bags of nuts, dates, and chocolate, and hugged us when we parted. “Mama,” they said. “God bless you!” I embraced them, promised that they would one day tell this story to their children, and hoped that I wasn’t lying to them.

We were informed by the woman whose apartment we were renting that a Syrian family who had been in the camp for over a year needed to be moved to the hotel, so we arranged to pick them up. Mohamed, his wife, Noor, and their two sweet sons, ages 6 and 7, were from Damascus and had been in refugee camps for over five years. Noor had lost two brothers and a sister to the Syrian war, and they themselves nearly drowned crossing the sea to get to Greece. Heartbreaking stories like these put a human face on the suffering we see on the news or social media. As with the others I had met, once again, I fell in love with this young family. Their dignity and warmth in the face of unimaginable tragedy and trauma amazed me. I wanted to hug them close and carry them home with me to safe, sane lives.


Another day there were three Congolese men and a pregnant woman waiting for us at the gate when we arrived. After much animated discussion in French, translated for me by the patient Brigitte, we got it: two of the wives (both pregnant) didn’t feel well but everyone wanted to meet us the next day. One couple climbed into our car, and off we went for coffee. The woman who was four months pregnant said little. But her partner was irritated at camp conditions, especially because “it’s not good for pregnant woman.” Usually gentle, Brigitte said, “Well, then, you shouldn’t have got her pregnant!”

This couple was alive, together, and had been living in the camps for only four months. We told them about the family with two small children who had spent more than five years in the camps. They were unmoved. The man wanted a cell phone and thought not enough was being done for them. He was shocked to learn that people were going hungry in Greece because of the economic situation. Brigitte reminded him that Congo is not the only country where people are struggling under a dictatorship. He quieted down, and we had a spirited but neutral discussion about world politics. I reminded him that even Americans don’t feel entirely safe now.

The next day when we arrived at the camp gate, none of our expected Congolese showed up, not even Arnold and Fanny, whom we had trusted to be responsive. We suspected that the woman and her disgruntled partner had told the others not to bother with us as we were not giving out cell phones or being very sympathetic. It was annoying; we had planned our day around those meetings with people to whom we had given time, attention, and nutritious food and had taxied around.

Soon we bade farewell to Polycastro. Before leaving we visited our sweet Syrian family at the Park Hotel again. Mohamed showed us pictures of the tent they had lived in for over three years—with two babies, and through the freezing winter. The photos showed tents collapsing and standing water everywhere. He told us there were snakes and then showed us a picture of a snake at the Nea Kavala camp in Polycastro that had wrapped itself around Noor’s waist. I asked him why Noor doesn’t wear a wedding ring. “She must say she is widow,” he explained. “I was policeman in Syria. Very dangerous. She lie to get out.” He then told me that they had sold everything: all the jewelry she had, his own wedding ring, “everything, and borrow from friends, everyone.” He had spent over $5,000 to get to the camp and still no definite sign of moving on, although since he had been placed in the hotel, perhaps that signaled an apartment somewhere soon.

Back in Thessaloniki, we phoned Raqida to confirm our morning appointment and got no answer, so we headed to Yusra’s apartment where we had a wonderful visit with her and her clever, happy son. Yusra is much better. She had been to the doctor who had confirmed Brigitte’s diagnosis of an infection. They had received their monthly allowance, and Raqida seemed more relaxed. She also told us that the expected baby is a girl. We conversed via Google Translate, and when the time came to say good-bye, I wept. I had become so fond of her. When she said she would have no one with her during labor and delivery, I told her, “I will be with you in my heart. Remember that!” She replied, “I am happy with you.”

In our final days, I decided to write an observation/recommendations report like the ones I did when I worked in international development. I felt compelled to do it, despite knowing that no one will want to deal with the issues I raise or the suggestions I make. What I write will likely end up on a shelf somewhere, at best.

A scene at the refugee camp.

At the last minute, we got a call from Raqida who rescheduled a meeting for the next day. We made our way to her apartment through dense traffic and clogged streets. Her husband, Said, met us and led us to their apartment where we met their 1-year old daughter and newborn son. When we asked what they needed, Raquida said “clothes.” We explained that we couldn’t provide clothes, but we could help with food. She said that she had money for food but she needed clothes. But when I asked what she had in the kitchen, she said “nothing.” I went with her to the kitchen and she was right: the cupboards and fridge were empty but for a plate of rice pudding and milk.

I repeated that we could get her food. She asked again for clothes. “You are my friend, you can give me money, clothes,” she said. I grew firm with her, explaining that we had spent a lot of money to come and help her and others, that we were volunteers, and that food comes first. In other words, we are not cash cows. OK, she said, and off we went to the market to buy fruit, vegetables, milk, eggs, rice, yogurt, and diapers, which she insisted must be Pampers and we insisted could be the cheaper store brand.

Back at the apartment we phoned Yusra so she and Raqida could meet by phone; they are both 19 years old and have two babies—well, Yusra almost. Who knows if friendship will come of it. She said that Yusra was going to the doctor because she “is opening.” I worried that if she is dilating at seven months, she could have a premature baby. I sent an e-mail asking BCI to check on this. We said our farewells.

Later, Panos and his cousin Mimi, with whom he manages the Airbnb apartments, met us for a farewell drink. We walked the pedestrian street lined with cafés. Mimi, a former interior designer and now nursing student, was as charming as Panos and spoke English well. We talked politics and birthing practices in Greece (not good). They agreed we are family now.

And so I bade farewell to Greece and to the friends I’d made there in such a short time, among them brave souls from Syria and Congo. It was a humbling, sad, inspiring, frustrating, memorable journey. And I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.




Elayne Clift writes about women, health, and social issues from Saxtons River, Vermont.