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Refugee women at the workshop sift through boxes of clothing donations from the Catholic Charities.


Cross-culture health promotion working for refugee support group

by Brooke Workneh
Nov 07, 2012


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Brooke Workneh/MEDILL

The women listen to a presentation on child safety.

Sleeping with your baby is the main topic for 20 refugee women at this week’s prenatal and postnatal support group about child safety at United Church of Rogers Park.

“Who knows where the baby is going to sleep?” asks workshop leader Erin Antalis. “Who’s planning on having a crib?” No one seems to be listening; the women are too busy having conversations among themselves. So Antalis phrases her question differently and louder. "Should we talk about co-sleeping?” she asks. The response is immediate; it is clear most of the mothers are sharing the bed with a child or planning to after they give birth.

The discussion is driven by the group’s questions on safety. Antalis demonstrates proper ways the baby should be placed, disposing of pillows and blankets to prevent suffocation. She also explains the importance of using a firm mattress. The women listen carefully as she talks about the proper way to co-sleep. Antalis often uses hand gestures to further emphasize her points. Interpreters help the women understand what she is saying.

The support group is sponsored by five organizations. It provides support through pregnancy and promotes prenatal and postnatal health. “It has two primary objectives, the first is to increase maternal knowledge and education, and the second is to provide a social forum,” says Antalis, an intern at Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights, one of the sponsoring groups.

Nir Gurung has been attending the support group for almost 2½ years. A young Bhutanese mother of one, Gurung finds this group extremely helpful in raising her child and staying healthy. It has provided her, she says through an interpreter, with the education to understand child safety and how to feed her baby.

Many of the challenges these women face stem from not knowing what to expect, Antalis says. However, she believes that this isn’t “just the experience of being a refugee and giving birth in an American hospital.” A new mom herself, Antalis finds that all women having a first child are uncertain of what to expect.

The support group focuses on answering the questions of refugee women like Gurung and teaching them how to find a health-care provider. “Rather than trying to take a dogmatic or Americanized approach to child-rearing, [the group tries] to take a more open approach,’’ Antalis says.

The workshop allows the women to first share their plans. That way instructors can cater to the women’s needs, rather than bombarding them with endless notes and presentations.

From nutrition to pelvic health, CPR training, and early childhood development, the workshop encompasses a wide variety of instruction.

Unlike most other pregnancy and postnatal classes, the Refugee Pregnancy and Postnatal Support Group is one of a few for women from multiple ethnic backgrounds. That day the group includes Burmese, Bhutanese, Ethiopian, and West African women.

“There is a lot of trepidation to doing any type of health promotion or health support group that is multi-ethnic, because there seems to be too much to overcome,” Antalis says. One difficulty lies in the need for several interpreters. There is also the assumption that cultural differences would be problematic. This workshop proves otherwise.

Cross-culture health promotion has worked for this support group. “Participants continue to come back, we have a really great turnout, and this indicates to us that [the women] are finding it very valuable and getting good information,” Antalis says.

The workshop will run through April, and meets twice a month every Tuesday from 11a.m. to 12:30 p.m.