The Cut: What It’s Like to Give Birth in a Refugee Camp
(Photo: Panayiotis Tzamaros/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
The following article was published by The Cut's Jen Gann for International Women's Day, with support from Women Deliver. To read the original article, click here.
Women of the World is a series of snapshots of how women live, in honor of International Women’s Day.
Before making the journey from Turkey to Greece, Turkia told her daughter they would be playing a game. Her toddler son was too young to ask questions, but her daughter, then 4, wanted to know what was going on. Turkia explained that they would be playing a game on a boat, and then, around 1 a.m., she, her husband, and their two young children climbed aboard an inflatable raft and set out over the water. Six hours later, they arrived on Samos, a Greek island. The family stayed there for three months before traveling to Ritsona Camp, a refugee camp about 45 miles from Athens. Twenty days later, Turkia gave birth to her third child.
Through the help of a translator provided by Women Deliver, a nonprofit organization advocating globally for the rights and well-being of women and girls, the Cut spoke to Turkia by phone about what it’s like to be pregnant, give birth, and care for young children in a refugee camp.
I’m 24, and I’m married with three kids: a 5-year-old, a 2-year-old, and a 7-month-old. I’ve always wanted to be a mother. When I was younger, I really loved playing with my brother’s children.
My first pregnancy was in Lebanon, and I gave birth in Syria; for my second, I was pregnant and gave birth in Syria. I spent most of my third pregnancy on Samos, a Greek island, where my family and I were before coming to Ritsona Camp, which is where we are now. We’ve been here for eight months.
As we prepared to travel to Greece, both my children seemed to know what was going on. My middle son was too young to ask, but my daughter really wanted to know what was happening. I don’t think my children would have understood, if I explained the full story about why we were getting on the raft. So I told my daughter we were going to be playing a game and going on a boat.
At 1 a.m., we set out on an inflatable raft. For the most part, being on the raft for the six-hour journey was fine — my husband and I held tightly to our children the entire time as we crossed the water, which took until about 7 a.m. My daughter didn’t seem scared until we reached the shore, where she got very frightened and started crying, saying she was afraid of the water. I got off the raft before her to show her there was nothing to be scared of. I brought my son off too, to show my daughter that if her younger brother could do it, she could do it too. Little by little, she was able to become less afraid.
We made it to Samos, where we spent three months. As soon as we got our certification papers, we sent them to Athens and came to Ritsona Camp. Before Samos, we were in Turkey. Syria before that.
I was at Ritsona for 20 days before giving birth to my third child. That time was very good — there were people and organizations who helped with my care as I prepared to give birth. The labor itself was not difficult, all thanks to God, and it went very well. This birth was different from the first two, in that it was a pretty easy labor compared to the other times I gave birth, when I’d had days and days of painful contractions.
In Ritsona Camp, families live in small trailers called Isoboxes, and that’s where I gave birth, with the help of a doctor who is also a refugee. I gave birth there, in my Isobox, because it was the weekend, and no hospitals were open.
The day after my baby was born, an ambulance came to take us to the hospital to recover. When the ambulance first arrived, an EMT told me that they needed proof the baby was my baby. They said they were not sure if I had really given birth, and they wanted the placenta to make sure that the baby was in fact my baby. This was very scary; I cried a lot.
I’m not sure why the EMT doubted that I had just had a baby. There was a woman with the EMT, and I brought that woman back to my Isobox, where I took off all my clothes and showed her that I still had residual blood, that I had given birth to this baby just last night. The doctor who helped me give birth was trying to serve as a witness; he said, “I helped her give birth with my own hands.” But the woman said they still needed to perform a test to see if my baby was mine.
Luckily, a midwife — also a Syrian Kurdish refugee — who was helping the doctor had hidden my placenta in the bathroom. We were able to retrieve it and prove that I had just given birth, that this was my baby. We would have never guessed we would need to use the placenta this way. Eventually, they took us to the hospital, where we were checked over and stayed for four days.
These days, I usually start the morning by taking my older two kids to the camp’s child-friendly space, which is run by the Swedish NGO Lighthouse Relief. My husband also sometimes takes the kids. He helps a lot — sometimes he’ll take all three of them so I can have some time to myself to relax. My children and I have a lot of games that we play, and in the evenings and on weekends, we like to watch cartoons together. My middle child often says how he wants a plane or a motorcycle. He’s very temperamental and sometimes gives me a hard time.
The hardest part of having three young children in a refugee camp is having to go to Athens to take care of paperwork. Traveling around a city with three young kids is particularly difficult. I haven't seen my family in seven years — even when I still lived in Syria, the area that I was in and the area they were in were divided by war.
The rest of my family is still living in Syria. Sometimes I’m able to talk to them on WhatsApp when there’s a connection, but there’s not always a signal. It’s very hard to be far from them. I haven’t seen my family in seven years — even when I still lived in Syria, the area that I was in and the area they were in were divided by war. We could not see each other even though we were in the same country. The distance between us would have been just a one-hour drive.
"I haven’t seen my family in seven years — even when I still lived in Syria, the area that I was in and the area they were in were divided by war."
I’m not really sure about having more children. My daughter sometimes asks me to bring her a sister, but I don’t want to have more kids until my family is stable. I hope my family’s future is good. We faced a lot of trouble, growing up, with the war. At the very least, I hope my children’s future is better.
Whatever happens to me, I don’t care. I’m just so fearful for my kids. Ever since I saw my brother die in the war, I’ve been so anxious and afraid for my kids’ well-being. I love my kids so much. I just want them to have a good future.
This story has been condensed and edited for clarity.