see: Creating Sanctuary
Catrin - Barry & Cardiff, South Wales - 'The Birth Partner Project'
In what ways have you volunteered?
Over the past few months I have been volunteering as a birth partner for women who would otherwise give birth alone. These women have mostly been asylum seekers and victims of human trafficking. I have met women during pregnancy, discussed their concerns and anxieties and provided antenatal information on what to expect during birth and their rights, choices and options. I have given emotional and physical support and comfort to women during labour, helped them make informed decisions and nurtured them when they have felt vulnerable and frightened. I have ensured these women have what they need for a healthy and enjoyable pregnancy and they have what they need for their new baby by collaborating with other organisations and sourcing donations from members of the public.
I have volunteered my time to help build The Birth Partner Project charity and have taken on the task of recruiting and training new volunteers. This work has included liaising with senior maternity staff, social media marketing, building a website, creating recruitment and training documents and policies and spending time supporting others involved with The Birth Partner Project. I have spent long periods of time supporting births, 24 hours or more on occasion and the development of the charity also takes up quite a bit of my time, I do enjoy it though!
What was it that brought you to volunteering with refugees?
I have been supporting women as a professional Doula for 12 years, during that time I have supported all sorts of families but struggled to be able to reach the vulnerable families that would most need my support while building a private business. My target market as a Doula has always been families which have the disposable income to pay for support and that has put my services out of reach of many. It was a colleague Jacky who first introduced me to the idea of supporting refugees and asylum seekers, Jacky had been volunteering for some time before she enrolled on my Doula training course and told me from the beginning she wanted to train to support the most vulnerable women in the community through birth.
I had a very sheltered upbringing, the plight of refugees and asylum seekers felt very distant to my life, it wasn’t until I became involved in the work Jacky was already doing that I began to feel a deep connection to these women and families. Meeting ‘A’ for the first time was a huge turning point for me, a timid, scared young woman with a bulging belly, little English and without a friend in the world, she arrived in Cardiff heavily pregnant and on meeting, it was clear she had experienced the most awful things in her life. I could care for ‘A’ throughout her birth, see her triumphantly bring her baby to her chest and take to breastfeeding like an experienced mother. Watching ‘A’ transform in front of my eyes from a scared, timid woman into a strong, happy, proud mother will always stay with me, it was the deepest honour to support her on her journey.
It wasn’t long into our volunteering that we, as a small founding group decided to form a charity and from there the idea for The Birth Partner Project was born. The charity is growing bit by bit with support and help from amazing people and organisations and I hope to take a major role in its development going forward.
What reward do you get from volunteering?
Being a Doula is very much a calling, a vocation and for me a little bit of an obsession. My private practice sees me in beautiful houses cooing over cute baby clothes, preparing couples mostly to welcome their new addition. For these couples having a Doula is all about experience, they want to feel fully informed, listened to, in control and they want the very best experience possible. Most of my clients have researched lots of their options, have a good idea of the birth they want and can eloquently describe their wishes, their anxieties and their dream birth to me. The reward I get in my private practice is both financial and I also get great job satisfaction, I love what I do and it’s such an honour to be able to support all births.
The rewards I get from volunteering are completely different and perhaps more profound. When I meet a lone asylum seeker in her accommodation I am usually hit by ‘lack’, these women lack pretty much all the trimmings we have become used to. They lack clothing, food choices, entertainment, socialising, and most poignantly family. As a human I feel a deep desire to connect to others, to care, nurture, share knowledge, teach, pass on my experience and this need in me is most filled by supporting refugees and asylum seeking women. I can, for a short time try to substitute the family of that woman, I can giggle with her like her sister, share the movements of her baby like her mother, stroke her skin and mop her brow like a partner and by fulfilling her basic needs of compassion, connection and love I get all that straight back. Connections like the ones I feel with these women, in these short but intimate times are so lacking in our sterile, disconnected society that there is something powerful, primal and compelling about activities that bring people together like this. Maybe I see a reflection of me in these women, maybe their loneliness and isolation speaks to my own experience, who knows.
What have been your struggles?
In two words time and money. Volunteering is tough when you are not financially in a place where you don’t have to work, personally I must work, in fact I have to work a lot. I work 40 hours per week in a call centre as a team manager, it’s a high pressure, stressful job, I am also a professional Doula and running my business takes up many of the hours I’m not in the office, then of course I am a wife and a mother, so any hours I am not in the office or with a client I try to spend with my family. When a woman needs me one of my other responsibilities take a hit, and as most working mums will realise, family usually ends up suffering. My husband, children and parents end up making the sacrifices when I am called out, I have also turned up for my office job having been out at a birth all night and I have also been called to a private client having spent the previous night out with another lone mother. Time is my fiercest enemy and toughest challenge.
The second biggest challenge is money. The Birth Partner Project cannot sustain itself on no money, the website costs money, marketing costs money, volunteers can’t be expected to pay to park at the hospital themselves to support women, volunteers need feeding on 12 hour shifts, training, recruiting and supporting volunteers will all cost money and as a new charity we have none. We’re trying hard to change it and know fundraising is a huge priority but where do we as volunteers prioritise our time? Women need us, fundraising needs us, everything take precious, precious time.
What would you say to your wider community to encourage others to be welcoming, or to work with refugees?
Firstly, I’d acknowledge that there is often a perceived distance between us and ‘them’, I get it, I grew up in a middle-class suburb surrounded by ‘good’ families and whiter than white children and our issues were whether we had the right shoes, the right length skirt and whether our parents could afford satellite TV and the newest computers. The world of famine, war and sex trafficking was simply something that happened on Panorama. It’s not though, the people who have experienced these things live amongst us, they can’t get far because they have no money for buses and you won’t meet them in restaurants because they must go to a rundown hotel to be served three meals a day they may hate, they may be homeless or living in a hostel, but they’re here. I have held a teenage girl while she cried for her mother who she will probably never see again and heard women speak in hushed tones of their past that they struggle to share even with women who suffered the same. These people are just people, alone in a new place, they are professionals, students, mothers, daughters, sons, fathers. They have the same needs as us and very simple dreams, to be safe and be free to live a meaningful life. A friendly face, a smile, a game of cards, a trip to the beach gives hope and light and meaning to so many, including those who volunteer.
What does your volunteering bring to your community?
I think on a very fundamental level it reminds everyone that our needs in pregnancy and birth are the same, regardless of our age, language, ethnicity or citizenship status. We all need support, dignity and love. We need to feel safe, valued and we need to be treated like a human being. Having a birth partner empowers women, it strengthens their voice, makes them more likely to fight for their rights, get what they want and to start making decisions as a parent. My volunteering shows the women, the staff and the wider community that people do care, that there are people who will resist the decline into xenophobia and suspicion of asylum seekers. The Birth Partner Project will support any woman who wants a birth partner and has no access to one because all individuals are equal, all families deserve the very best start in life and we value what our volunteering brings to our lives too.
What difference has your volunteering made?
I would like to think that I have been able to improve the birth experience and early days of parenting for the women I have supported, I think my impact on just one life is such an honour and I feel my life is given purpose through being able to serve others. I hope my volunteering with The Birth Partner Project on a more organisational level has a much wider impact, I like to think my rapport and reputation in the local hospital helps develop the relationship between volunteers and the maternity staff and I hope my Doula training skills help more and more volunteers gain the skills and confidence to support women and families achieve safe and positive outcomes. I will be immensely happy if just one woman was glad I turned up, because then I would have made the whole world of difference!
Website: The Birth Partner Project
Facebook: South Wales Doulars
website: Wales Refugee Council
UK wide organisation: City Of Sanctuary