A few moments after checking into the maternity ward of Ippokrateio General Hospital in northern Greece, Suad Iessa hoists herself onto an examination table. She’s nine months pregnant and is about to get her first ultrasound. Back in Syria, Suad would have had many more by this point, but the 25-year-old refugee spent the first six months of her pregnancy on the run from war and the past three in a refugee camp with limited access to prenatal care.
Suad turns her face away in embarrassment as the male ultrasound technician pulls aside her gown to run the wand across her exposed belly. He glances at the computer screen, then pauses. He calls in a colleague. They speak in rapid-fire Greek, gesturing at the screen and then at Suad. “There’s a problem,” one of the technicians says. He steps out of the room to summon the ward’s senior doctor, and Suad’s eyes fill with tears. She doesn’t speak the language, but she understands enough to know that something is very wrong.
When Dr. Efstratios Assimakopoulos, director of the hospital’s second university obstetrics-gynecology clinic, moves the wand over her abdomen, he mutters an expletive in Greek and summons Suad’s husband, Thaer Sannaa, into the cramped exam room. “It’s a very bad situation,” he says in English. The baby is O.K., he continues, but Suad’s placenta is in the wrong place–it has penetrated the uterine wall and attached itself to her bladder. She will have to have a cesarean section, followed by another surgery. The doctors could try to save her uterus, but there would be a chance that she would hemorrhage to death in the process. Would Thaer give the surgeon permission to perform a hysterectomy?
Thaer, who was a prosperous olive-oil trader back in Idlib, speaks some English but has a hard time understanding some of the more technical medical terminology. After a few attempts at clarifying what’s going on, Thaer gives up in frustration. “Do what you have to do to save my wife and my baby,” he says. “I am already broken from this refugee life. Don’t break me anymore.”
No one explains to Suad what is going on. As she’s wheeled into surgery, she understands only two things: that she might die, and that this is the last baby she will ever have.
At 4:01 p.m. on Sept. 30, the tiny wail of Suad’s newborn daughter breaks through the beeps and hisses of the surgical suite. The baby is whisked out of the room so that the doctors and nurses–12 in all–can continue with the bladder surgery for another four hours. Out in the corridor, a pediatrician congratulates Thaer on the birth of his daughter. Thaer names her Hamida, after his mother.
As he waits for news of his wife’s surgery, Thaer rails against Syrian President Bashar Assad, against the war that has caused nearly 5 million Syrians to flee their country, against the U.N. refugee system, against everything that had transpired to bring him to where he is today: a once successful businessman living on handouts in a Greek refugee camp. He’s the father of a stateless child, a parent who doesn’t know where his three children will grow up or what languages they will speak. He doesn’t even know if his newborn daughter will ever see her mother alive.
More than 1,000 Syrian refugees like Suad have given birth in Greece this year, and since September, TIME has followed four of them. These are mothers to children of no nation, conceived in war and gestated in flight. Through video, social media, photography and the written word, TIME will spend the next year documenting the babies’ first year of life. Wrapped in donated blankets and secondhand onesies, they will likely spend at least the first months of their new lives in hastily built refugee camps that offer little protection from winter’s freezing temperatures and summer’s swarms of mosquitoes. They are between worlds. In a world teeming with unknowns, about the only thing certain in their lives is that they probably won’t see their parents’ home country until they are adults, if ever.
This is an excerpt from TIME. To read the piece in its entirety, click here.
See the full TIME multimedia presentation here.