Her dad was held in a prisoner-of-war camp and her mum was forced to flee her homeland — now German-born midwife, Elke Hasner, who lives near Macroom and has delivered more than 500 babies, is planning on travelling to Greece to work with refugee families, writes CHRIS DUNNE
CORK midwife Elke Hasner doesn’t know any of the refugees in Greece. The people, numbering more than 50,000, are mostly Syrians, but also Kurds, Yazidi and Afghanis. They have fled everything they have known for everything they don’t know.
Even though Elke hasn’t met any of these people yet, she can identify with them.
“My own mother had to flee from her own homeland during the war years,” says Elke, who is a community home birth midwife covering Macroom, West Cork and Cork City.
“She only had the clothes she stood up in and her sewing machine. The sewing machine kept my mother alive. She earned a living from it. Later she was reunited with her father and her brother. She never forgot what happened to her family but she learned to live with it.
“My dad had been in a prisoner of war camp for five years. He was there after the war ended. His mother and sister were in the same refugee camp as my mother.
“Dad lived with me for the last four years of his life. He never spoke of his experience. I was very close to him,” says Elke. “It was a privilege to look after him.”
Elke feels empathy with the refugees who have reached the relative safety of Greece.
“I am from a similar background to the people who have been displaced. And I have made a good life despite adverse circumstances,” says Elke. “I take from that.”
She is travelling as a volunteer to Athens on February 4 to join the Nurture International Project. Based in Greece, the Project provides qualified, skilled volunteers who support mothers by building mother and baby tents where mothers can rest, eat, stay warm and feed their babies in a safe, welcoming, and peaceful environment.
“My role is more supporting mothers in the nursing situation,” says Elke. “Helping them maintain breastfeeding and relactation.
“Many of the mothers are traumatised. They may not be able to breastfeed their babies. With support and education it is possible to continue and re-establish breastfeeding. According to the World Health Organisation, it is the first best option,” says Elke. “The second is to express breast milk for baby, the third option is donor milk, not necessarily from a wet-nurse. And the fourth option is breast milk substitute; ie, formula milk.”
Elke always wanted to be doing her job. She works as a community midwife, a service provided by the HSE and estimates that she has helped deliver 500 babies in Ireland since 1990. She has been working 35 years.
“I trained as a midwife in Hanover, Germany, says Elke, who is from Bremen and has three grown-up children.
“I’ve always wanted to work with women. I feel strongly about women’s rights in making their own decisions regarding child-birth.
“I believe in letting the woman make her own decision. It is a normal, natural process. Often, child-birth becomes too medicalised. I have difficulty dealing with that. My background is for a natural, positive approach. Giving birth is a natural process. That is best for baby.”
The percentages opting for breastfeeding are high among home-births.
“Eighty per cent of women on the home birth service still exclusively breast feed after three months.” says Elke.
Some mothers may find it difficult at first.
“Yes, if the mother hasn’t had the right start, breastfeeding may be difficult to continue,” says Elke.
“She is still getting to know her baby. Women are discharged from hospital on day three when breastfeeding still needs to be established. With continuation of care and education, help and support, it is easier for the mother to continue breastfeeding. Hence the 80% rate after three months.”
Elke is ever-ready. When we meet, she had delivered a baby girl in recent days, and all went well.
“A lot of babies decide to arrive in the middle of the night!” says Elke. “I am always well prepared when I get the call to attend a home-birth.”
Why did she volunteer to travel to Greece as a volunteer?
“I saw a Facebook appeal for midwives and lactation consultants. It appealed to me and I decided to apply.”
The crisis situation struck a chord with Elke. The refugee crisis is at an all time high.
“I am familiar with a crisis situation,” she says. “My main concern for eight days is to help mothers and babies to continue a healthy breastfeeding pattern. To help them learn all aspects of mother and baby health, and to re-establish the bonds that may have been broken with their babies due to trauma.”
Elke says Nurture Project International is a vital project.
“Mothers will arrive at the breastfeeding tents with their babies. Pregnant mothers will register there. Any fears, problems or worries about any possible dangers will be addressed and explained to them. Mothers will receive the support that they need from the help, information and education provided by the skilled volunteers.”
Tents also distribute backpacks with basic necessities like snacks, warm clothing, hygiene kits, toys and diapers to bring comfort to families who left everything behind.
“As many supplies as possible are sourced in the locality,” says Elke. “So that the local economy is supported and this promotes a feelgood factor at a time when it is needed.”
Elke is bringing her expertise to people experiencing loneliness and fear of the unknown.
“I hope to share my skills,” says Elke. “I will be on hand for those mothers giving birth. I will bring my doll that I use to demonstrate baby massage.” Her own, familiar, life will be put on hold for 10 days.
“That is not important,” says Elke, whose family supports her. “They think I’m mad!” she adds. “But they are very supportive.”
Her husband, Fritz, will keep the home fires burning while his wife is striving to nurture and nourish new babies after leaving their natural home and travelling to strange land in treacherous conditions.
“Yes, and he will mind and walk our dog,” she adds, laughing.
Has she visited Greece before? She smiles.
“Many years ago I went inter-railing as a student.”
Has she any concerns?
“I may be overwhelmed by the amount of people and by the misery there,” she says.
Her gofund campaign is going well. Elke is organising her own flight, and paying for provided apartment accommodation.
“I will meet the other volunteers in Thessaloniki,” says Elke. “We will be ferried by car to the camps.”
Will the language barrier pose a problem?
“I know the project is seeking translators,” says Elke. “I have a few basic words of Arabic on my phone to get me by.”
Sometimes, actions speak louder than words.
“If I can make a difference to some of the mothers in the camps regarding breastfeeding and pregnancy related matters, then I will be happy.”
Elke will focus on those things.
“I know in my own head I won’t solve the crisis. But I can help with the fall-out. It is lovely for the refugees to think that somebody cares.”
To donate, see Elke’s gofund me page on https://www.gofundme.com/volunteering-trip-to-greece