Snapshots from the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative in Greece
How funding from the EU ‘Refugee and Migrant Child-Health Initiative’, has enabled UNICEF and its partners to improve refugee and migrant children’s health status in Greece.
With funding from the European Union (EU) ‘RM Child-Health Initiative’, UNICEF and its partners have been supporting the health and wellbeing of refugee and migrant children in Greece, with a focus on those who are the most vulnerable. As the initiative draws to a close, we look back at some highlights since its launch in 2020.
2020: Safeguarding health in a crisis
For refugees and migrants on the Greek island of Lesvos, 2020 was catastrophic. The COVID-19 pandemic had curtailed their already limited movements still further, and the destruction of the once notorious Moria camp triggered a humanitarian crisis. Support from the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative helped UNICEF and its partners react at speed to these dramatic events, aiming to safeguard the health of children amid the chaos.
Eight-year old Amir and his mother had endured a gruelling journey from Afghanistan and had managed to build some kind of life in the over-crowded Moria camp on Lesvos. When the camp burned to the ground in September 2020, they lost everything, and were rehoused in a new camp: Kara Tepe.
Following the Moria fire, UNICEF worked with the local authorities and partners to launch an emergency response and services to reach affected children and women with vital support, including health care. Its existing Tapuat Child and Family Support Hub on Lesvos, was transformed into an emergency shelter for vulnerable women and children. And interventions were launched to ensure basic services to protect children’s health, including clean water, safe sanitation and hygiene measures, as well as psychosocial support. The resources of the 'RM Child-Health' initiative were mobilized to support mother and child care services, including counselling on infant and young child feeding.
Health literacy materials were shared on maternal and child health, as well as protection from COVID-19, and positive parenting during lockdowns. Services to prevent gender-based violence (GBV) – always a risk in such stressful situations – were maintained, with UNICEF and its partners continuing to support survivors’ access to state-run counselling centres and shelters, as were mental health and psychosocial support services (MHPSS) for children and adolescents.
Asked what he hopes for, Amir was clear: “To get out of here. To be somewhere good. A house. A big house with everything, where I can study.”
2021: Two mothers, two children and two safe spaces
Mothers with their children, and children who are travelling alone, were among the hundreds of asylum seekers gathering each day at the Greek Asylum Service Offices in Athens and Thessaloniki. Responding to their needs, UNICEF’s partner METAdrasi had created Mother and Child Spaces next to the Offices. Every month in 2021, more than 400 mothers and children benefited from each of these safe and welcoming spaces.
The ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative was helping to support these safe and friendly spaces, where mothers could breastfeed their babies while their young children played in the care of dedicated METAdrasi team members and volunteers. The Initiative also supported information materials on health-related risks and services for refugees and migrants, particularly for young mothers, on breastfeeding and women’s personal hygiene.
Marmar, a young mother from Syria, was waiting patiently with her child and her own mother for an appointment at the Mother and Child Space in Thessaloniki. She was waiting to get an answer on her mother’s asylum application. When it came, the answer was “no” and she was inconsolable. Staff from METAdrasi immediately rushed to her side, offering comfort.
Andromachi and Chryssa, METAdrasi Coordinators for the Mother and Child Space tell us:
“Very often we have the feeling that this space functions as a container for the absorption of negative emotions of the people who visit us. People who come here often feel safe enough to share their fears, their frustrations and even their darker thoughts. We try to give them space to express their feelings and we always find ways to boost their morale.”
In Athens, we met Leyla, a Syrian mother of three children. Leyla told us that her children were always happy to visit the Asylum Service, because they would be able to play at the Mother and Child Space. This time, Leyla and her children had prepared a surprise for the METAdrasi team here: a dessert they had for them to say ‘Thank you’. “You are like a family to us,” said Leyla. “My children feel very safe to be here with you.”
This was the last time Leyla and her children would visit the Mother and Child Space. They were there to go to the Asylum Service Office and collect their passports. Next stop: Germany.
2022: “We have friends here!”
Like Leyla a year earlier, Yezda, a young mother from Iraqi Kurdistan, her husband and their seven children were visiting the Mother and Child Space in Thessaloniki for their last time as they waited to collect their passports and ID cards. They fled Kurdistan to protect their family from conflict and Yezda showed us the wounds she has on her legs from the bomb explosions, saying “The pain on my body and in my soul is diminishing by the fact that now we are all together and safe.”
After fleeing from Iraqi Kurdistan, the family had faced police brutality in Turkey, and decided to cross to Greece, where they believed their children would be safer. During their trip, their boat broke apart “We used the broken parts of the boat to stay afloat and swam until the shore. We were really lucky to make it, all seven of us, in one piece” said Yezda.
She is thankful for all Greece has offered – above all, the chance to raise her family in safety. “We have friends here”, one of the children shouted in Greek while we talked. The family would not dream of leaving Greece. “We love the people here. And since both my husband and me feel calm and secure and our children are content, we really do not need anything more!”
Yezda turned to the helpers from METAdrasi one last time to say goodbye: "Thank you very much girls, we needed all of your help. The Mother and Child Space kept me and my family safe and warm in our most difficult time. Now we can dream and live again."
Taking stock of the ‘RM Child-Health’ Initiative in Greece
- Over 3000 children and 2300 mothers benefited from access to services, including psychosocial support, GBV prevention and support and mother and childcare services – almost three times as many as originally targeted for the Initiative.
- 3600 refugee and migrant children and parents received UNICEF-supported information on GBV prevention and response, immunization, maternal and child health, and mental health and psychosocial support services – more than twice as many as originally targeted.
- Implementing partners: Caritas, Diotima, ELIX, Iliaktida, The Melissa Network, Metadrasi, Solidarity Now
An independent evaluation of the ‘RM Child-Health’ Initiative has taken stock of its impact in Greece since 2020. It has confirmed that the Initiative’s flexibility and its focus on system strengthening has supported the expansion of capacity in situations where these systems have been over-stretched. This could be seen on the island of Lesvos, Greece, where human resources in state-run facilities have faced serious constraints in meeting the demand for health care, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, and where partnership with Reception and Identification Centres has proved crucial.
All training delivered under the ‘RM Child-Health Initiative’ was delivered in a way that was relevant for participants and responsive to their needs. The starting point was their existing knowledge and experience, aiming to build their sense of ownership and engagement. They were also consulted to assess what kind of support to prioritize. This process revealed challenging areas that were added to the training: working with vulnerable children; professional stress and burnout; and the importance of cross-sectoral cooperation. The training was also flexible, incorporating a module on how to deliver training online during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In response to the pandemic, implementing partners used a hybrid approach to reach refugees and migrants during lockdowns. They piloted community-based activities at four sites, and all service provision shifted to remote programming via telephone and internet. In camps, UNICEF’s partners complemented remote delivery with tent-to-tent visits. Partners created WhatsApp social groups for different age groups and shared ideas for coping with lockdowns. Simple and engaging visuals on COVID-19 prevention and on how to maintain good nutrition during the pandemic were developed and shared. Child-friendly information posters and stickers on COVID-19 prevention are now on display wherever refugees and migrants congregate.
Stakeholders have also reported greater awareness of child nutrition and the importance of breastfeeding. In Lesvos, the needs assessment for the training found that kits for mothers contained breastmilk substitutes. A set of training materials on the benefits of breastfeeding was produced, including a ‘truth or myth’ game for use with pregnant or lactating women. The training created a new network of people who have kept in touch, with some asking for more information. Implementing partners have noticed that training participants have started to collaborate in the camps, with midwives and volunteers, for example, working together. In one camp, there have been no requests for breastmilk substitutes since the training.
The Initiative has supported extensive work on gender-based violence, including the mapping of GBV service providers and referral mechanisms to state-run shelters and counselling centres. The work of UNICEF’s implementing partner, Melissa, has been notable: delivering mental health and psychosocial services (MHPSS) through group therapy. This approach, which built trust, proved vital during the COVID-19 pandemic because it could be transferred smoothly to online delivery to maintain women’s engagement.
A separate grant provided women with tablets, which they often called ‘Melissa’s eye in their house’, saying that it made them feel safer. Melissa also developed a code women could use to ask for help. Women felt secure enough to share their experiences, knowing that they would get the right support. This resulted in a high rate of self-disclosure. Women were referred quickly without having to complete extensive questionnaires. Instead, a team of highly skilled psychologists and therapists identified GBV survivors and provided follow up.
This story is part of the Project ‘Strengthening Refugee and Migrant Children’s Health Status in Southern and South Eastern Europe’, Co-funded by the Health Programme of the European Union (the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative). It represents the views of the author only and is her sole responsibility; it cannot be considered to reflect the views of the European Commission and/or the European Health and Digital Executive Agency (HaDEA) or any other body of the European Union. The European Commission and the Agency do not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.