Bearing Witness in Greece

It’s the coldest winter in Greece in 40 years, or so the neighbors say as they shake their heads at the snow. The streets of Thessaloniki are slick with ice as our car winds through the city. The camp is an abandoned warehouse on the edge of town amidst a patchwork of factories and fields. An icy wind snakes its way through broken windows, its forked tongue flickering through lines of laundry that will not dry. Somewhere a metal door creaks slowly open and shut in the draft.

Her smile is warm as she draws back the flap on her tent. I duck my head as we enter the dim space and kneel in front of a tiny electric heater. “Tea?” she asks, and soon we are sipping the strong sugared brew from styrofoam cups. Her three year-old daughter pushes the plastic buttons on a toy guitar and we laugh as “Old MacDonald” buzzes from the tiny speakers.

Finally, I unzip the blood pressure cuff and the midwife reaches into her bag for the Doppler. For a moment, there is only the crackle and swish of sound waves through the gel. I stare at the specks of light shining through the seams of the walls and try to imagine living in a tent for a year. Finally, her face breaks into a wide smile as the faint drumbeat of the baby’s heart fills the air.

This is her sixth child, the one that will be born in Europe. The one that will never know the explosions in Aleppo or the sound of waves against a dinghy but will also never see his grandmother’s smile. She will give birth in a hospital surrounded by strangers who do not speak her language, in a country where 60 percent of babies are born by Cesarean. If she is lucky, the family will be selected to move to an apartment before the baby comes. If not, she will bring her child home to canvas and concrete, the same floor where they eat, sleep, and make love.

“They say we will be moving in a few days,” her husband tells me today. He has been telling me this for the past two weeks. And yet, there is a glint of hope in his eyes. Measured, hesitant, but there nonetheless. “Insha’Allah,” he adds with a smile.

In our doula training, we learn that the word doula has Greek origins, meaning “someone who serves.” It feels a bit ironic in this country where I am unallowed to accompany these refugee women to the hospital. And yet I have learned as a doula that serving is rarely synonymous with fixing. There are times in birth –in life– where the pain we observe cannot be removed, it can only be moved through. My work is to show up, to be present, to bear witness to the fierce courage of those who choose to bring life into the world. And so I smile back. “Insha’Allah”, I reply.

I am sitting on a vinyl couch in the lobby of an airport hotel with a young couple from Idlib. One year ago this month they were married, and two weeks later they began the long journey through Turkey to Europe. Recently they moved from one of the camps into this hotel when her pregnancy was identified as high-risk. She hands me a cup of tea and curls over her belly to reach for the sugar. “How many spoons?” she asks, and stirs in a generous amount before I can reply.

She banters with her husband in a blend of Kurdish and English as they talk about their hopes to be granted asylum in Switzerland or Germany. “Or Canada,” she says, nodding to my fellow volunteer, a midwife from Montreal. I notice she does not mention America. Silence falls among us, and she looks down at her hands. “I’m afraid,” she whispers. “I am afraid they will cut me.” She draws a hand low across her belly. “I have seen so much blood…”

The tea is too hot and scalds my tongue. I lower the cup quickly. In the hush of the moment I know that any words would be false ones. I know that her risk for cesarean is high. I know that I will get on a plane to leave before her baby comes. That nothing I can say or do will erase what she sees when she closes her eyes.

I take a breath. I meet her gaze. I nod. I bear witness.

I bear witness to her grief, her tenacity, the fierce hope which has driven her in search of a new life. To the maddening patience required to live here, in what a fellow volunteer has named “the waiting room of the world.

The poet Jack Gilbert writes, “we must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of the world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the devil.” Every day I encounter this stubborn gladness in the faces of these families. Every time they defy the constraints of the term “refugee” and replace it with a term of specificity: music teacher, librarian, entrepreneur, mother. Stubborn gladness lingers every time I am greeted with a kiss on one cheek and two on the other. Every time the haunting call to prayer echoes off these concrete walls. Each time we lay a blanket on the ground and share a meal together. When the bicycle bells ring as the children ride up and down the rows of tents. Every time I am privileged to hold a baby in my arms.

We have finished our prenatal check-up and linger together in this apartment where three Syrian families now live. Her 13-month-old son snuggles against the curve of her belly, eying me with suspicion while his three-year-old brother presses every button on the TV remote.

“Look,” she says, reaching for her phone to show me a video. “My husband. In the camp. Look.” I look, and there is a smiling man planting a row of seedlings in the ground beyond the tents. The delicate green shoots rise from the dark earth as if to say, “Here. We will live here. If this is the patch of ground that we have, then we keep growing. We will rise.”

Baba!” her son cries, dropping the remote to reach for the screen. “Baba, Baba.” He cradles the phone and smiles, sinking to his knees on the carpet. She grins at me and absentmindedly rubs her belly as the youngest buries chews the fringe of her scarf and buries his head in her shoulder.

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