Thursday, March 31, 2016

The only tears I shed

I didn't cry for several days. I held it together when the people were held on the boat.  I held it together through the cold, dirty, desperate conditions.  I held it together through meeting the man who fled his home after his parents were killed and his home destroyed by a bomb during the Russian airstrikes.  I held it together when I helped the grandma and her young granddaughter who had been hit by a taxi.

I held it together and I smiled, and waved, and laughed and played, because these kids need a moment of freedom from the stress of their parents, from their fear and their entrapment, their fates...

But the night I accompanied my beautiful friend Nawara as she answered the desperate plea from her fellow countryfolk; no, the borders will not open; no, we do not know what will become of you; no, we don't know how this will end.

I didn't need to speak the language to feel their souls being crushed, their hopes being shattered to within moments of its life...I cried then.  I did my best to hold it in, I did my best to smile for them and hold them in the place of dignity that they so deserve...but once we walked away the tears began to flow.  Nawara's eyes watered as she confessed her feeling of helplessness, and how this reminded her of the Syria she once knew, but was now gone forever.  Their eyes and faces with their solemn, utter disappointment haunt me, the vastness of the unknowable swallowing them whole in an instant.  No, we don't know when your children will live under a real roof once again.  No, we don't know if they will try to send you back...

That night, I cried my eyes out.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016


I am pleased to welcome my friend and teammate Kate DiMarco Ruck to tigerbug for a special guest post about our time in Athens.  Kate has been studying diligently for the last several years to become a lactation consultant, and got to put her skills to good use and discover a new mentor on the topic of infant feeding in crisis situations during this trip.  Below is a piece she wrote about some of her favorite moments from the trip.


The Red Cross handing out duffle bags
The past few days have been so full, busy, exhausting and exhilarating. I can't believe we've only been here for a week! I'll try to summarize my favorite moments.
The refugees arriving on ferries has completely dried up. Anyone making it to land in one of the Greek Islands is sent to a detention camp and not processed through Athens. The last ferry we met was a few nights ago. We fit 2 or 3 carriers and handed out lots of hats and supplies. When unloading refugees off of the ferries, the port police have the buses there to transport refugees surround the loading dock after all the other passengers disembark. This gives the refugees little choice but to board a bus to be taken out of the port to a camp outside the city. I can't imagine the feeling of getting off a boat and having no idea what to do or where to go next. To be frozen with indecision and then realize you have very little choice. This night, a man who was blind disembarked. One of our volunteers helped him walk towards and board the bus. My team member,Kat and I knew there was a mom on the bus who had turned down the offer of a carrier. We had fitted two other parents who were now on the bus and thought maybe this mom would regret not taking one after seeing other parents with them. We made the decision to board the bus, wading through a crowd of Port Police surrounding the door. We met a family sitting at the very front. We asked them if they needed anything and the father asked for water. We didn't have any. We handed hats and gloves, emergency blankets and sleeping bag insulators to the teenage daughter. We asked the mother we were looking for if she changed her mind about a carrier and she hadn't. We left the bus. Once off, I realized I had a hat large enough to fit the blind man and hadn't given it to him. Did we dare go back on to pass it along? This is what I liked about having such bad-ass fellow volunteers. One of us would voice a thought, an idea that would seem to scary to undertake alone, another would validate that thought and would go along with the new plan. We got back on the bus and gave the man a hat. Back on the ground, we voiced our regret for not having water for the thirsty father. There were no vending machines in sight. Kat had a clean, empty water bottle with her and I had some water left over in my bottle. This wasn't enough so we combined it with water from another volunteer's bottle. We thought about how long this family could be on the bus with out food or beverage and decided to skip back on the bus, right before it left. Kat ran up the steps and threw her arm over the railing towards the dad, trying to not be noticed by anyone else. He took the bottle and we left the bus for the last time. As we were walking away, I saw him taking a big drink and passing the bottle to his family, and, yeah, that felt good.
How to safely make a bottle
We still spent our days walking through the camps, fitting the carriers, but also decided to volunteer at a gate, filling in where needed. Many of us worked in what's called the Emergency Room at gate E2. This was for handing out very specific supplies, tissues, a few baby wipes, sanitary napkins, diapers and making bottles of formula. All of these items are available from the supply container, you go to the ER in a pinch. We were trained on what to give out, how to make bottles (those of you who know me well know that this was a great conflict within me, especially since we had no means in which to clean these bottles 😟) and most importantly, to say NO to any other requests. Most of the knocks on the door were no. We don't have cups, we don't have tea, hot water is only for baby formula, we don't have sugar.
I wrote down, step by step, the process of making a bottle of formula, hopefully making it easier for a new volunteer to prepare them safely. We labeled each can as to the age appropriate for and tried our best to keep the prep table clean. 

Later on, at the daily volunteer meeting, CTF was asked to consider making a safe space for women and children within the camp. I was asked to head that project. I've never done anything like that before. I spoke with other volunteers, gathered information from other sites and talked to professionals about what would be ideal. As this is the end of my time in Athens, I messaged my proposal to the head of the camp. I don't know if it will be executed.
I also messaged the camp leader about improving safety with the formula bottles. I probably ruffled some feathers when I reported that it was unethical to be making formula in dirty bottles. I offered easy tweaks to their system in order to improve safety. I don't know if that will be executed either, but I feel good with speaking up. Especially since many babies have diarrhea and there have been 3 cases of Hepatitis A in the camps, two of them children. I also left an easy breastfeeding tool in multi languages that anyone can use to asses if a mother is breastfeeding or not. In an emergency situation such as this, formula feeding can be dangerous and the norm of breastfeeding should be encouraged and supported.
That brings me to yesterday, one of my favorite experiences here in Athens. I did the early shift at the ER, bringing carriers with us just in case. After our shift ended, my teammate, Ann and I worked the Tea Line, run by A Drop in the Ocean. The tea line is exactly that, men women and children line up in an (hopefully) orderly fashion, and we pass out plastic cups full of strong, hot tea. Traditionally, most people enjoy 10+ cups of very, very sweet tea a day, but at the camp, they get one cup in the morning, slightly sweetened and one at tea time. The tea is made in a huge vat over a large propane hot plate. In order to accommodate the long line, the station is set up far away from the water source, so it takes many volunteers to haul the water to make the tea. Once it is brewed, we form an assembly line to distribute. My job was to fill the plastic pitcher by dunking it into the vat and then pour the tea into cups. Ann hand me the cups and takes the full ones to the table where another volunteer hands them out and makes sure no one tries to get more than one serving. Yesterday was a no breakfast day, so done volunteers were able to distribute sandwiches, I don't know where they got them.
Vat of TEA
After the tea line, I walked over to Gate 1.5 and met up with a local IBCLC who was volunteering with the midwives. She knew one of my mentors in NYC and I felt lucky to be connected to her. I fit a few more carriers and after a while, Maria, the IBCLC,Karleen, a researcher visiting from Australia, the interpreter, a few mothers and children and I all squeezed into the incredibly tiny midwifery camper. Maria and her translator, Zhou Zhou had previously walked through the tents, looking for mothers with young children, 2 and under, and inviting them to come speak about their feeding experience. I ended up charting each visit while Maria took each history and counseled each mother beautifully. We were so happy that so many mothers were breastfeeding their babies, some were still breastfeeding their toddlers! We encouraged them to continue doing so, there was no need to stop if they didn't want to. What a gift these mothers were giving their children. In a camp where terrible coughs are heard and mucousy noses are seen everywhere, their children will be receiving preventative medicine many times a day. 
In Arabic and Farsi- the Midwifery and breastfeeding camper.
It was so joyful for me to be with these women. To watch the midwives work and reassure the moms. To witness a conversation translated by two interpreters, English to Arabic, Arabic to Kurdish and then back again. What pride these women felt in their children. This has sparked something in me and I feel like it is just the beginning for me and the path I want to pursue. I'm thankful to everyone who let me be a witness.
Done at 3pm after working a full day already, I walked with Karleen Gribble back to town to get some lunch, my first meal of the day. Karleen is a researcher, writing a paper on Infant Feeding in Emergency Situations. She interviewed me about my experience as a volunteer and with making the bottles of formula as a breastfeeding counselor. She will be presenting her paper at the Breastfeeding In Medicine Conference in DC in the fall and I'm so happy to be a small part of it.

Homeless Refugees at the port, catching fish (they got one, it was amazing!) with a luxury cruise liner in the background.

Saturday, March 26, 2016


I am pleased to welcome my friend and teammate Kate DiMarco Ruck to tigerbug for a special guest post about the situation in Athens.  The honestly crafted text below was originally a simple post she put on Facebook to try to explain just a fraction of what we've been seeing here.
This is a dire situation. The Prime Minister of Greece toured one of the camps last week and called it the worst camp situation since the Holocaust. Our friends here at the port are only slightly in a better situation. Primarily, everyone is in a tent (some are pup tents, I've seen one or two play tents, some are fairly decent camping tents), on the open concrete parking lot, next to a port where it can be very cold and windy. There are so many children here. Some young, single men don't have tents at all, just blankets in the open air. The refugees are squatting on private land. The tents surround small terminals where ferry passengers are usually sent to wait for their boats to island holidays. Everyone who lives and works here (including us), is breaking the law. The water or electricity could be turned off at any point. Some refugees are situated inside the terminal. The benefit of this is that it is warm and protected from the rain. Yesterday it hailed and was so cold. I thought about all the children I saw without socks. Or hats. Or coats. Life inside the terminal, while protected from weather, is loud, bright, smokey, crowded and public. Blankets are laid out on the floor to designate space. There is no protection of personal belongings. There is no shelter from harmful people. I worry about Human Trafficers and the young girls housed here. Fighting at night is very commonplace. It used to be that Syrians, Afghanis and Kurds were separated in different camps to prevent conflict. That is no longer possible as there are over 4000 souls placed at the ports. The cultural mixing leads to clashes and fights. It is impossible to sleep, to feel secure to breathe and relax. Everyone is on high alert. No one knows what will happen tomorrow, where they should go- are they safer here or should they move to another camp, will they be forgotten there? There are rumors about the other camps- it is wet, muddy, remote- food is scarce. There are rumors about different ways to get passage to the rest of Europe. 
This morning there was no breakfast for our friends. The Red Cross decided that they would only bring breakfast every other day. There was no warning and no contingency plan. Tonight, the dinner at one camp was spoiled. So all our friends had was lunch. The children got their milk and there was one tea time, but today, some people just had lunch. There is a stadium full of supply donations from all over the world, and yet it seems like only our friend Fadi with his commercial van is the one transporting the donations to the camps. A drop in the bucket. 
While there are many well intentioned volunteers, it is said that no one is truly in charge. One hand doesn't know what the other hand is doing. Everyone is doing their best just to get by. A group came in today and their mission was to just wash the babies. Not all the children, just the babies. Mothers were given numbers and waited in line. 
Most of the refugees haven't showered in over two weeks. Today there was a small shower available at one camp, and while its presence was celebrated, I don't know how many were able to benefit. I'll never forget the group of pubescent girls who begged me yesterday to tell them where they could take a shower. 
We have separated the aid donations from our carriers. As we travel through the camps, we try to find very inconspicuous ways of handing this out. Last night we walked through the camps and it was so upsetting to see so many children without outerwear, especially as it had just hailed and was freezing. . I now stuff all my pockets with socks, hats and gloves. I scan crowds for bare feet, cold hands, and uncovered tiny heads. When fitting a mom with a carrier, I try to outfit her whole family. A hat for the baby, socks for little brother, gloves for the older sister, an emergency blanket, multiple protein bars and packets of vitamin C. Thank you all for your wonderful donations of this aid. Our distribution almost has to be done in stealth, because we can be soon overwhelmed by children and parents, curious and sometimes demanding about what we have to offer. Several times today I had to chase young boys who snatched our carriers and ran. I tell them I'm happy to fit their younger sibling, but they need to bring the baby to us. It hurts my heart to scold anyone in such a situation. 
Tonight we fit numerous carriers and the parents were very receptive. I made the contact I needed to be able to help in the medical camper with breastfeeding moms. I also promised the doctor I would provide them with carriers and train them how to fit their patients. We met a young nursing mom and her 3 month old baby this morning and I reassured her that she is doing what is normal and best for her baby. Nawara and I visited her family later to check on them and we were able to do an assessment. She and her husband were so young and so beautiful, the injustice of their lives being what seems like forever paused in this place is unbearable. The husband doesn't sleep because of the fights that happen at night, people entering their blanket space and taking their belongings, he is in constant alert to protect his wife and child. He told us that if things don't change, he will bring his small family back to Syria because at least if they are faced with such terrible things, they will be in the comfort of their home. It is worse in the camps. 
I didn't know what detention camps really were before this. I always considered them to be for criminals who needed to be separate from the public. But these are detention camps. People are held with no information, no options, no opportunities, miles away from the city and any services they could hope to use. They depend on food deliveries that are not dependable. There is a limited capacity to sanitation and no showers. The aid workers rarely speak their language and it is exhausting to explain what you mean, over and over again. There is nothing to do. It is cold and can be wet. They sit and wait and wait. Paralyzed by fear of making the wrong choice of going somewhere else and ending up in a worse situation. Families are torn a part. Now that the Euro borders are closed, people who have loved ones in Germany and other stable countries, have no idea if they will ever be reunited. We have met countless single mothers with multiple children whose husbands are in places like Germany and they don't know if they will ever be reunited. They are stuck, their children growing up without their father, not knowing the benefit of a secure relationship. 
I don't know how to wrap up this update. I thank you all for your wonderful words of love and support. They have really gotten all of us through this. We are not heroes, we are witnesses, helpers and now friends. The work is so invigorating and rewarding to us all. We all want to be here and want to help the families we meet. 
I ask you my friends, how can we help these people? What will it take for the US to wake up and realize what is going on? How can we demand the EU to figure out the border issue and open the borders to allow these human beings access to safety and stability we all take for granted. ? Where is the justice and equity in this world when these people cannot control their own fate, cannot secure a life out of limbo for their children, do not share the essential human right of life and freedom that we all have the advantage of living every day? When will these children go to school? Be lifted up off the ground in sleep? Enjoy the simple pleasure of playing at a playground free from fear and danger that so many of us cavort in every day? 
The situation is dire. This is an emergency. The relative peace at these camps will only last for so long.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Day 1.

Athens team 6 Dulles flight brigade!
There is one analogy for understanding emotional health and well-being that basically centers on the idea of  each person having a cup that is filled by things like rest, love, friendship, order to be healthy and happy, you need to have a full cup. The lack of those simple things, and the hardships you endure slowly drain your cup, leaving you depressed, angry, lonely, apathetic, and sad.

So much of what is happening in the middle east right now is draining cups left and much pain and confusion and loss of connection to family, community, friends...the loss of the self to a sea of objectified persons lumped together in a single, all encompassing label: refugees.  It's easier to malign a group of people if they are just that; a group.  But tonight (this morning?  I have no idea of what time or day it is right now, but my heart is full and breaking at the same time, and stopping now without reflecting would keep me in an awake, adrenaline fueled state that wouldn't serve anyone...) we got to start lifting the veil on that dismissive label; and tonight we fit our first carriers.

My portion of the luggage. We travel light. 
I left the states on Sunday, after working solidly for 30-some odd hours prepping and packing carriers, met my team at the airport, where we had  a cinematic mad dash to make our flight...and of course I got stuck at security, getting the full pat down and delaying our whole team...eventually I was cleared and we RAN for the gate...which was of course the single farthest gate from the airport entrance, but somehow we made it.
We can tooootally carry all of this, right?? Photo by Keli Anderson

That flight was largely uneventful (except for the soldier who wanted a backrub...) but rather pleasant. Connected in Zurich to Athens, had many hilarious moments of juggling the nearly 600lbs of baby carriers I packed along with all of our personal luggage and two MORE bags that Sarah brought...Rode in a van overstuffed with carriers, exhausted and giddy...we passed the old Olympic stadium, which is now home to so many refugees...checked into our room, met the rest of the team, had a lovely meal on the beautiful rooftop restaurant at our sweet little hotel, then got to work packing the carriers into "Go" position and then word came down that there was, indeed, a ferry coming in tonight, late, at like we prepped, went upstairs for a glass of wine, Met the powerhouse that is Rita  - the woman who pretty much single handedly runs the permanent on the ground wing of CTF - and two of her helpers, and headed for the port.

The Ferry Approaches: photo credit: Keli Anderson
While we were setting up to meet the ferry, a young man thanked us for helping and told us that his family was on this ferry, he was there to reunite with them after two years, and they had squeaked in just before the new rules took effect.  He said his family called to tell him that only people who had a place to stay would be allowed off the boat, that they were going to make the rest of the refugees stay on the boat until morning, at which point they will be put on busses and taken to the camps.

We learned that this man was from Syria, and while we chatted for quite a while and he was quite helpful to us in trying to figure out what was happening with the refugees on the boat (which had been behaving erratically all day, so we knew something was up) declined to have his photo taken with us because he used to be a journalist and reported on things that the powers that be didn't want known, so now it is not safe for him to be recognized ...

Later some anxious looking men came to me saying a word I didn't understand repeatedly, they seemed to want to know where to go...I directed them to someone who could help and later learned that what they had been saying amounted to a safeword, and they were telling my deaf ears that they were actively being sought and their lives were in danger.

Add caption

It turned out to be true, they weren't releasing any refugees without a place to stay from the since they couldn't come out into the open where we could help them, we decided to go to them, and got on the boat ourselves!  This was a first not only for us, but for all of CTF.  They've never done something quite that brash before, but then again they had never needed to.  We respected the authorities wishes that we didn't take any photos on the boat, but man oh soon as we walked into the top level of the boat where they were being kept, I spotted a man and woman sitting with a tiny kid...and we hit the ground running from there.  Our team scattered across the holding deck, and working as quickly as we could safely do, we fit carriers onto every willing parent we could find...That first gentleman I approached had 6 children, all quite young...I fit carriers onto both he and his wife - he was adamant that I fit him if it was only one, and was very happy when I was able to fit them baby was awake, and the minute we got her into her mom's new carrier her tears dried and she looked up at me and smiled and it melted my heart.

When the dad stepped up to be fit for his carrier, I realized he had no shoes.

First thing I realized was how much easier this task was than I was anticipating.  People we so grateful to have a way to keep their children safe and secure without their hands...and every acting exercise I have ever done that requires you to tell a story or communicate something wordlessly made this act of instruction without words very fact, it felt so natural that I found myself slipping into speaking in gibberish, which is common in that type of exercise, but utterly ridiculous out of context...I think it helps me to not focus on the words, but on the meaning and the action.  Eventually I became self conscious of that, lest anyone know enough English to think I was mocking them or something, so I tried to stay away from the gibberish,,.but somehow, not focusing on the words and cutting off the gibberish lead to speaking (wait for it) Spanish.  Why? I have no idea, there was absolutely no context for me to start speaking Spanish and it did no more good than the gibberish!

Tiny elevator selfie!

But, I digress...I went on from family to family, hopping over seats and sleeping children to reach as many people as I could...It was so awesome to discover how much I was able to communicate - and physically do! - in so little time...we spent only moments with each person, and in less than an hour, we were done.  Walked back to the hotel, repacked more carriers for tomorrow, grabbed some hot chocolate, hit the showers, and called our own families at home while we decompressed.  ...Except Rita and her guys...they hopped int a to small car to go in search of a kitchen in order to bring food to all of the people stranded on the boat! She is a true rockstar and I'm so glad they have people like her on the side of compassion.

There is too much for me to ever be able to fully express or recount what I experienced tonight...there is so much to much has happened since I last went to bed (forever ago!) and I know I will never have words to describe the ephemeral guts of it...But I will say, the babies I held, the parents I fitted, the people who I had nothing for that I exchanged smiles with...It was heartbreaking. But also really really wonderful - exhilarating, I'd say, to hit the ground running, and after all this theoretical talk here I was dressed in as many baby carriers as I could fit on while retaining my ability to move, standing at attention as the boat docked, the reports came in, the police patrolled the perimeter..

That gentleman was thankfully reunited with his family, and the men seeking immediate help were at least pointed in a good direction...and so many people in these situations...

I guess it's like Mr/ Rogers said; look for the helpers.  Tonight I got to BE one of those helpers on this scale for the first time, and let me tell you - it isn't that I'm doing anything heroic or dramatic or even special, but seeing the excitement, gratitude, and smiles in their eyes as I communicated with them and greeted them and fitted  them... That, my friends, those smiles, that glimmer of humanity in the face of colossal loss and terror...that is what gives the Helpers their magic. It's not just that they physically help, it is that their presence and compassion refill our cups, little by little, and it touches lives beyond just one person in the moment - it has the power to move in a ripple effect across all of humanity.

indisde the way overpacked van, taken by our lovely driver ( you can see them in Keli's gkasses!)

Tonight I got to have a front row seat to seeing that magic's amazing work in action.  It is beautiful, it is glorious, and it is real.

Athens Team 6!!

In solidarity,

I'm a carrier octopus! Photo credit Kate Ruck

Friday, March 11, 2016

OMG I think my babies are little growing up people now!!!

I don't know who taught them to pose like that.
My kids and I spent a few hours today at the east coast distribution center. Though they could have stayed in the comfort of the air conditioned van, and played, or done workbook pages, or listened to the radio, they insisted that they wanted to help (even though it meant being outdoors in the weird 80 degree whether in early March that was "just too hooooooot!"...)

So cool...
It was a gentle reminder of not only the intelligence and love children possess and the capabilities they have to rise to the occasion, but of how lucky we are to have the relative safety and comfort that we enjoy in our own lives...watching them work, I got a glimpse of them in the opposite situation; were we in the shoes of the refugees, my amazing kiddos would be the kids - like so many Carry The Future has already encountered - helping each other out, keeping things light for their fellow travelers, and prevailing even when the family is sadly separated along the way.

Even carrying younger siblings when they have to.

These are kids just like ours, rising to meet horrid, unfair needs, and making it work. 

Actually caught a candid of them in action! You can barely see them but all three are in there actually working, the littlest asked to be in charge of collecting and sorting the 'trash'-all the silica packets, plastic bags, and discarded papers - while her sisters busied themselves opening the boxes, pulling out the carriers, removing the tags and directions from them, and putting them into the appropriate bags.

Can you imagine that here in America? Our schoolchildren forced to suddenly take on a grown up independence for their own sake and for the sake of each other, on a long, dangerous journey to the unknown?

My 8 year old carried her 3 year old sister around in a carrier (which was very part of a very large, generous donation given to CTF by Evenflo! So wonderful!) for a bit today, to illustrate what is so hard for us to fathom.

I think Cadence's face says it all here.

All three kiddos took their roles opening and sorting carriers very seriously (except that they giggled the whole time, which is admittedly not very serious!) 

Of course it *was* a race to see if they could finish the jobs they'd chosen before I finished everything I was doing...which I was not informed of until AFTER I lost. 

My kids helped me out for real today, and we only stopped because we couldn't fit any more recycling in our car! 

Seriously took us a solid 15 minutes just to pull it all out of the trunk and stick it in the bins.

(And of course they all insisted on helping with the recycling too; which admittedly took a little more assistance from the lone grown up in the mix.)

Actually Cadence figured out a way to do it unassisted...just took some skill and careful aim or it'd bounce right back at her.  She found a good rhythm pretty quick, though!

While she technically *could* do a variation of Cadence's trick, Hazel decided to conserve her energetically resources and just had me lift her up after the first one. Smart choice.

Calliope wanted very much to help with this too, but -probably in protest to my assistance - she would only do it if she was  stepping as hard as she could into my stomach for completely useless traction.

There is so much to be done, but my heart is actually soaring as I realize how much this work that my kids chose to do is going to help the helpers -kids, parents, extended relatives, caring friends - make that awful journey that much easier, safer, more sound...or at the very least, more comfortable.

In solidarity,
(And Cadence, Hazel, and Calliope)

Callie and I testing out the new evenflo carrier design.  Seems to be a general thumbs up, I'd say!  Thank you, evenflo!!!