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Carry the Future: Baby Carriers for Syrian Refugees

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Holistic Parenting Magazine: Welcome Cristal! It’s so great to spend the afternoon with you today!

Cristal Logothetis: Thank you! I received your latest issue in the mail and loved reading it!

HPM: Tell us about your story, what inspired you to start Carry the Future (CTF)? Are you an Attachment Parent? Have you always enjoyed babywearing?

CL: I guess my story began last summer when I went to Europe alone with my two year old. The only reason this turned out to be such an enjoyable trip was because I had discovered the joy of babywearing. I remember being in France, and at the time I knew nothing about the Syrian refugee crisis. In Paris I kept seeing refugees in the streets, begging, and a family with two small children caught my eye. I felt, in that moment, how fundamentally wrong it is for children to be living in the streets.

 

Then when I got back home, news of the three year old boy Aylan who drowned trying to get to Kos–a little island in Greece nobody had ever hear of–made headlines and I became aware of the refugee crisis. My husband is from this tiny island (population of 30,000) and last summer this island was receiving thousands of refugees. The waters in this part of the Aegean Sea are treacherous in the winter and difficult to navigate. After that little boy drowned I spoke to some of my husband’s relatives on the island and they would said, “you walk out of your house and there are refugees everywhere–packed like sardines in the park, in the churches, outside the hospital, in the town square…” It was an incongruous situation because in the summer, Kos is a hotspot for tourists. Last summer the beaches were full of tourists trying to have a normal vacation, sunbathing on the beach while dinghies packed with refugees were washing up on the shore every twenty minutes.

HPM: What a contrast.

CL: Yes. So when Aylan drowned, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was horrified and wanted to do something, anything, to help these unfortunate people. So I quickly mobilized, and asked our aunt if I may send her some baby carriers. By then I had seen pictures of families walking hundreds of miles with little babies and children in their arms, and thought a carrier might make their journey a little easier. Personally I am lost without my carrier! I can’t even walk a little distance before my arms start aching.

The original goal was to collect one hundred baby carriers in my community, and then I started up an Indiegogo fundraiser aiming to raise $2,000 so I can send these carriers to my aunt. Well, that didn’t happen! One week into it, I was contacted by the Huffington Post editor saying she loves what I’m doing and she wants to write a piece on it. I didn’t know it then, but at that moment a grassroots movement was born. When I woke up the day after the article went live I had raised $7,000! My inbox was bursting with messages of support.

You’d be surprised but Syrians are metropolitans, they live in big cities, in apartment buildings. The babywearing culture of woven wraps was lost fifty or sixty years ago when they became modernized. Sadly, it’s a lost art. At this point most of them are using strollers. They obviously cannot bring strollers on boats.

HPM: That’s so awesome! Was it smooth sailing after that, or were there obstacles to overcome?

CL: You know, it was strange, but I was attacked by the groups I least expected: the babywearing community.

HPM: No way.

CL: Yes, the babywearing groups I was a member on Facebook told me I was nuts. First of all, they said baby carriers weren’t a lifestyle choice for Syrians. “They don’t like baby carriers, they don’t use baby carriers.” Their second argument was that there is no way for me to make sure these carriers will be used safely. I felt the latter was a legitimate claim. By then I didn’t only have donations of baby carriers pouring in, I also had people reaching out to me wanting to help. I launched the campaign September 15th–by the 20th I had a group of seven women who were offering to go to Greece with me. I decided to first do an exploratory trip with one friend who is a doula and babywearing consultant.

We went to Kos and sure enough this tiny island is heaving with refugee families, not just from Syria, but also Afganistan, Iraq, even from Eritrea and Somalia. There was zero Red Cross presence on the entire island; There was one Doctor Without Borders… there was literally only one small local church group that would pull up every morning and serve everyone a bottle of water and a banana for breakfast, and in the evening there was another small group of altruists from Sweden who were passing out sandwiches. That really opened my eyes. For some reason I thought the island would be swarming with UNICEF people helping–not the case! So on that first trip we took 500 carriers and it was a little intimidating for me because I felt that thousands of people were counting on us helping them, and there were barriers of language, and my own doubts about whether the refugees would want my carriers in the first place!

 

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HPM: So what was the response?

CL: Overwhelming gratitude. One of the first people we fit with a carrier was an older man who’s English was excellent, but he was perplexed as to why we wanted to help. I just said “I want you to reach your destination safely, and this carrier will help you achieve this!” He got all teary… he was caught off guard with our small gesture of help. Many refugees have spent time in Turkey, and unfortunately the people of Turkey are capitalizing on this refugee crisis: they charge the refugees huge amounts for anything they buy or any service they use while there. This is why some of the refugees are suspicious and unbelieving that we were offering something for free. That fact is, to this day, our biggest challenge. Because some don’t speak English, it’s hard to explain with hand gestures that our carriers are for their children and they are free. Some initially want to turn it down because they can’t pay for it. We wear dolls in the carriers to show them what they are. When we went on the exploratory trip we looked like crazy people to the tourists: two American chicks with dolls in carriers trekking the island! But it was the easiest way for the refugees to see what these contraptions were for. So, with gestures and smiles we put the carrier in their hands, saying “here, here, for you” and then pretend to walk away so they understand it’s free. Once they realize it’s free and you’re trying to help, they break into smiles and are very trusting. It’s a beautiful thing to see. And once you’ve fitted one mom and she’s happy, the others will all gather around and tap you on the shoulder to indicate they want one too.

HPM: So what is your success rate?

CL: For every 100 families we meet, there’s maybe one or two who decline our carriers, some indicating that they already have some kind of sling or carrier.

HPM: That’s amazing. I would think more families would set out to travel with a sling. Don’t Syrians traditionally carry their babies in woven slings?

CL: You’d be surprised but Syrians are metropolitans, they live in big cities, in apartment buildings. The babywearing culture of woven wraps was lost fifty or sixty years ago when they became modernized. Sadly, it’s a lost art. At this point most of them are using strollers. They obviously cannot bring strollers on boats.

The Afgani women have lived with war for so long, mothering skills are no longer passed down from the women in their family. Most families have tremendous casualties, so, for example, we’ve fit several very young women with carriers who have three or four little ones and have known nothing but war since they were seven years old–it’s not like they’ve been in their traditional home setting where these skills would naturally be passed down. This is one of the reasons we see many issues with breastfeeding too–many of them struggle because they never had a matriarch to show them and help them learn to breastfeed. We did come across a fantastic group of dedicated women who are in Greece as we speak helping refugee women to breastfeed.

It might not be a lifestyle choice for Syrian women to babywear, but to those who doubt our cause, I say, neither is being a refugee, and neither is walking 300 miles. I think when you have extreme situations like this, you’re going to want to make these people as comfortable as possible. When you’re walking for hundreds of miles with an infant or a toddler in your arms, when are they going to nap? Refugees are on the move all the time–it’s a race to the finish line. They don’t make stops or rest in hotels, they are aware that they need to get to countries with good economies  who are open to them as quickly as possible. The children are experiencing weeks upon weeks of travel with no good naps or meals, which can make for some very cranky kiddos! Having these little ones travel in baby carriers makes it easier for everyone.

HPM: The uprooting and constant traveling must make these children feel very insecure and anxious–I bet being in a carrier, close to their parent or relative can be a great source of comfort to them.

CL: And for the parents too. It helps them to be less anxious. After a long day of exhausting traveling, they just let their kids wander around, whereas with the carriers they can keep them close–and these toddlers are happier to be near their parents. Also, many refugees travel in large groups and so the five, six, or eight year olds become the babysitters for the infants and toddlers. Placing little ones in carriers, takes a burden off a five year old who is too exhausted to look after her sibling. In this way, one baby carrier benefits a whole family.

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HPM: Do the five year olds ever ask to be carried? What is your age/weight limit?

CL: Yes, and it is crushing to see their need to be carried but know they’re just a little too big for our carriers… We have encountered many small children who, once they see how comfortable their toddler sibling is in a carrier, they want to get in too! We assess each case by size, and try to fit as many as is safe in carriers. We do bring over a small amount of framed backpack carriers, although the cost to ship them is prohibitive, in order to accommodate some special cases, such as children with injuries which make walking torture for them. I will never forget, we met a thirteen year old girl–who was traveling alone with her little brother who was about four years old–kept begging us for a carrier. We kept gesturing that he’s too big and needs to walk, and finally a man came over to us and explained that the little boy had an injured foot and would not be able to continue on his journey. So we made an Ergo carrier as big as we could and he fit in it, on his sister’s back, his legs dangling. The sister kept thanking us and I could see even though she would now be carrying him a great distance, a weight was lifted off her shoulders because she knew they wouldn’t get left behind. The sight of her carrying her little brother had us all in tears.

HPM: I imagine you have many moving stories to tell–sacrificial love is so striking when given from those with so little themselves... How many times are you traveling to Greece at the moment? Tell us a bit more about the focus of CTF.

CL: Well, the wave of refugees has slowed down a bit since winter came, so at the moment we are making two trips a month. We anticipate the numbers to pick up once spring is here and the weather is better, so are planning on three 10-day trips per month. So far, Athens had worked great, because all the refugees get picked up from the islands by the ferries–it’s kind of like a grayhound service–and get dropped off in Athens. It’s still relatively early in their journey, so getting fitted for a carrier in Athens works well so far.

Part of our success is that we’re very flexible. CTF is run primarily by moms and we know how to go with the flow. As an organization our mission is twofold: we want to help refugees, but we also want to empower individuals to make a direct, meaningful impact in the life of refugees. We have a responsibility towards our volunteers as much as towards the refugees. There is such an incredible hunger to help–many moms were frustrated, just as I was, after seeing the horrors of this humanitarian crisis and not knowing how to help. Giving a baby carrier that’s gathering dust in their home is such a brilliant way to help a fellow parent. A baby carrier is something very meaningful, it’s not cheap, it’s worn and loved, it’s not an item you’d part with easily necessarily, but it’s an item that will make a direct, meaningful impact in the life of a refugee. Because we are not a huge organization, we are able to be flexible with the needs of the people we serve, so for example, we became aware of the need for flashlights and solar blankets, so we bought some and tucked them into the carrier pouches. Everything we do revolves around the baby carriers because this is our focus, but there are plenty of items we can fit into the pockets of the carriers as the need arises. We often sneak snacks and toiletries in with the carriers.

My little effort to help has turned into a grassroots movement, which has now turned into a non-profit with 5,000 volunteers and a volunteer staff of eighty people. 

It might not be a lifestyle choice for Syrian women to babywear, but to those who doubt our cause, I say, neither is being a refugee, and neither is walking 300 miles.

HPM: What do you see in the future for CTF? Once this crisis is over, will you focus on another areas?

CL: I feel we will always focus on refugees and displaced families, however, this being the biggest humanitarian crisis since WW2, even if the war in Syria ended today, people will continue to flee and not return, because there is no infrastructure or sustainable economy. This country will take years to rebuild. We are open to working with other non profits, delivering baby carriers to refugees in the European countries they travel through, and even working in the US with asylum seekers.

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HPM: Aside from motherhood, which you’ve been enjoying for two years now, do you consider CTF your calling?

CL: Absolutely. I am very passionate about helping fellow parents in this way. Sometimes it feels like carriers have taken over my life–especially when a Fedex truck arrives, packed with donated carriers, and our warehouse is bursting at the seams!

HPM: I am so glad you’ve taken this on, and you are in a position to inspire people all over the world to help parents in need. I am sure our readers and fans will want to help when they read about CTF, because HPM is a community of compassionate parents, mentors, and educators who also share a passion for babywearing! What can we do, now that we’ve learned about the needs of refugees in Greece?

CL: Thank you! We encourage people to donate their used baby carriers along with $5 (to cover the cost of shipping it to Greece and getting it fitted) on our Indiegogo account (http://igg.me/at/CarryTheFuture/x)

We only accept soft structured carriers, primarily because we have about three minutes to fit the carrier on each parent. Factoring in the language barrier, it’s just not practical to teach someone to wrap in three minutes only with gestures.

Whoever feels moved to volunteer within our organization, our website has all the information on how to become a volunteer. (www.CarryTheFuture.org)

HPM: Wonderful. Thank you so much for spending time with us today Cristal. It’s been a pleasure to hear more about you and CTF. Keep up the good work! The HPM community admires and supports you.

CL: Thank you for the opportunity to spread the word about our work! 

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About the Author
Kathryn Los
Author: Kathryn LosWebsite: https://holisticparentingmagazine.com
Kathryn Los is Owner, Editor, and Publisher of Holistic Parenting Magazine. Kathryn is married to her soulmate and together they parent six delightfully vibrant children in the Colorado Rockies. She has a background in sociology and philosophy, and has enjoyed working as a birth doula and breastfeeding counselor for over a decade. She has founded and led several women's groups, on a spectrum of communities and interests. Kathryn is an advocate for authentic, intuitive parenting. She considers herself a cheerleader of her six life learners. She is passionate about holistic parenting, and loves sharing inspiration with like minded people across the globe.

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