For newly arrived refugee women, giving birth in a new country can be terrifying. The IRC’s pregnancy support program helps make the experience easier – and joyful.
Baltimore, MD – After surviving a treacherous journey out of Myanmar to Malaysia, Hlawn Kim and her husband, Van Run Sang, were thrilled to arrive in the United States as part of the International Rescue Committee’s resettlement program. But just as they were getting used to their new life in Baltimore, Kim became pregnant with their first child.
For newly arrived refugee women, the prospect of having a baby in an unfamiliar environment can be overwhelming. “If you have limited English skills, imagine how challenging it can be to find a doctor or clinic and schedule an appointment, and that’s just the beginning,” explains Adrienne Atlee, health program manager for the IRC’s US Programs office in Baltimore.
To help these women negotiate a complex health care system, the IRC started the pregnancy support program. The first participants were Burmese, but the program now assists Bhutanese, Iraqi and Eritrean refugees as well. “We meet with women as early in their pregnancy as possible” says Atlee. “We are trying to make the pregnancy and birthing experience less daunting.”
With the IRC’s help, Kim obtained health insurance, set up medical appointments, selected a hospital and enrolled in a nutritional program. Since refugees arrive with few possessions, the IRC also assists expecting couples to acquire cribs, car seats, baby clothing and diapers. As her pregnancy progressed, Kim started attending pre-natal workshops, which had been developed in partnership with Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing birth companions program.
“We give women the opportunity to know more about their bodies, how their bodies work and prepare them for labor,” explains Tenley Spatz, a nursing student and the workshop’s facilitator.
The workshops also allowed Kim and other refugee women to form support groups. “In Burma, we rely on family and mothers during pregnancy,” she explains. “Without them here, I didn’t know about what to expect. I think the workshops are especially helpful for first time mothers.” When Kim went into labor and checked into the hospital, her birth companion, a nursing student, was waiting for her. Birth companions explain procedures to the expectant mother, communicate with medical and nursing staff, and assist with keeping the patient comfortable.
Nearly 150 pregnant refugee women have been helped since the pre-natal program began in 2008. Forty-four women currently are signed up to work with birth companions. “As refugee women build their lives in the U.S., we hope to provide them the tools needed to continue to have healthy pregnancies and healthy families,” says Atlee.
This story first appeared in the IRC’s 2010 Annual Report. Article and photos by Martha Dodge.
Melanie Mayo-Laakso is the Content Manager for Mothering.com. Mothering is the birthplace of natural family living and attachment parenting. We celebrate the experience of parenthood as worthy of one's best efforts and are at once fierce advocates for children and gentle supporters of parents.