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Halifax doulas 'like family' when helping Syrian refugee women

Doulas in Halifax are having a hard time keeping up with demand as Syrian refugees come to Halifax, leaving their support network behind.

Five-month-old Reeman Alhaj Jassem was born in Canada from a Syrian refugee mother with the help of a local doula.

Jeff Harper / Metro

Five-month-old Reeman Alhaj Jassem was born in Canada from a Syrian refugee mother with the help of a local doula.

Fleeing war in Syria, Amal Shwikh faced not only making a new life in Halifax with her husband and three children but giving birth.

Having no family here, Shwikh was connected with a volunteer doula through the Chebucto Family Centre.

“I was quite scared because I am here with no family and I don't know anything here. Donna helped me,” she said in a phone interview.

“I like Donna. Donna like family, very helped me.”

In June when Shwikh went into labour, her doula took her to the hospital while her husband stayed with their other children.

So many Syrian women like Shwikh are wanting doulas it's putting an unprecedented demand on them.

Whitney Cruikshank, a doula at the Chebucto Family Centre, said they've never seen such a large influx from any specific target group in the 20-year history of the program. There are 40 active volunteer doulas in the program covering all of HRM.

“Certainly we are working very hard to meet the demand right now,” Cruikshank said. “It does make it a little tricky because there are families who are coming in to Canada and they're close to their due dates so there is a time crunch as well having enough support to offer these families. Our doulas go above and beyond and their volunteer capacity.”

Doula Whitney Cruikshank of Chebucto Family Connections.

Jeff Harper/Metro

Doula Whitney Cruikshank of Chebucto Family Connections.

Doulas are typically matched with pregnant women who are at about 32 weeks gestation to give them enough time to meet two or three times before delivery. Using an interpreter, doulas provide information, emotional support, and give the moms-to-be an idea of what to expect in the Canadian health care system.

And when the big day arrives, doulas are at the mom's side, non-stop until the baby is born.

“Whether it's a two-hour labour and delivery or 30 hours, we are her person. We take no breaks or shift changes, that's part of the beauty of the relationship: we really develop a strong relationship of trust.”

After the delivery, doulas provide support for up to six weeks.

So many Syrian refugees request doulas because they had to leave their support network at home.

“They come from a beautiful culture where a pregnant woman is surrounded by family and friends during this time in her life so there's a real void when they arrive in Canada,” she said. “We try as best as we can to be a support to her in that way and we do not compare at all to her friends and family at home but we do try to fill that gap as much as possible.”

Cruikshank works with many of these families and she says it's an honour to witness their strength and determination at a vulnerable time.

“I benefit far more from working with these families than vice versa. As a doula and a person, I learn so much working with these families.”

She said they are strong, determined, patient, generous, and incredibly grateful.

How you can contribute

New moms need so many things and Cruikshank is hoping HRM can help with that.

Most, if not all, the women doulas at Chebuto Family Centre work with are in need of anything and everything baby-related.

“Things like car seats are a complete shocker to them to know you would need such a thing because many didn't have a car,” Cruikshank said.

They're looking for donations of warm clothing items for the babies and for their other kids too. They also need hats, booties, diapers and strollers.

“And something we like to do as doulas is come with some goodies so next-to-new or new items for moms like slippers and comfort items like tea.”

Donations can be dropped off at the Chebucto Family Centre at 3 Sylvia Ave. or staff from the centre can pick them up.

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