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Meet three extraordinary women behind ‘Mother Tongue’, a project striving to improve the birth experience for refugees

This Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, we are spotlighting a National Lottery funded organisation training eight women to provide basic translation, care and support for pregnant refugee women in Bristol and beyond.

‘Mother Tongue’, which received £10,000 in funding from The National Lottery Community Fund, aims to assuage some of the feelings of alienation and culture shock for refugee women giving birth in the UK and improve communication between them and the health professionals attending their birth.

We spoke to three of the women behind Mother Tongue to hear more about the project.

Kate Woods, founder of ‘Mother Tongue’ and CEO of ‘Doulas Without Borders’

Kate Woods has been a Doula (a trained ‘birthkeeper’ who offers emotional, physical and informational support to pregnant women) for over 20 years. Her organisation ‘Doulas Without Borders’ is a network of volunteers that provide free services to women across the UK, who are experiencing multiple disadvantage and financial hardship during pregnancy, birth and early parenthood.

Kate created Mother Tongue at her home in Glastonbury. She said:

“I noticed the same issue repeating, when coordinating referrals for our service. Women with no English needed our support, but we couldn’t bridge the gap without shared language. I knew that being able to connect women with a linguistic and cultural ‘match’ could provide safety, allow for informed choice and ultimately, a more dignified birth.

“At the time, translators weren’t allowed into the hospital, as they weren’t seen as key workers. And even when they are allowed in, as they aren’t trained as advocates or birth attendants, they can’t provide what non-English speaking women in vulnerability need. The support is usually via phone as well and the women have to walk in labour to the maternity reception’s landline.

“The refugees and asylum seekers we support are often alone in the country, without family and dealing with the culture shock of being in an unfamiliar healthcare system, plus the trauma from felling their homeland and they’re surrounded by people speaking a different language. So it struck me as a good idea to offer training to those women who are fluent in the mother tongues of those we support and with some lived experience of what so many women are going through. The training provides a sense of achievement and integration for our students and a great match for those who they’ll support. Through this, we hope to contribute towards rebuilding a sense of community too.”

Dr Şebnem Susam-Saraeva, Senior Lecturer in Translation Studies at the University of Edinburgh and Doula

Dr Şebnem Susam-Saraeva is an expert in translation and an experienced doula. She works with Kate on Mother Tongue, training the woman in the basics of translation and interpreting, how to deal with medical terminology and the principles of supporting women in childbirth.

She said:

“Translation and interpreting take years to learn to a professional level but what I hope to be able to teach these woman is how to keep the communication going and to advocate for the women they are with, providing some sense of home and consistency throughout their pregnancy as they navigate a period of uncertainty.

“Giving birth is such a primal experience that women, even if they speak English fluently, revert back to their mother tongue when they give birth. I believe it is important that these vulnerable women, many of whom have already experienced a great deal of hardship, are able to feel supported by someone who knows their language and culture.

“When a woman does not have any English, the care given and the interventions during labour and birth cannot be explained to them. The environment can feel like an ‘alien spaceship’. I can only imagine how frightening that must be. Our hope with Mother Tongue is to help alleviate that for the women supported by Doulas Without Borders.”

Fatma, Mother Tongue Doula in training and Syrian refugee based in Bristol

Fatma is one of the eight Doula trainees participating in the programme. She came to the UK in 2016, leaving behind most of her family and friends in Syria. A mother and refugee, she has intimate knowledge of some of the problems women who share her experience face.

“During the training, I have learnt different ways to support women giving birth. I want to make women like me to feel safe and confident as a new mother. I think it’s important to share the language of the women to make them feel at home and positive, giving them the birth they deserve.

“It has also helped me with my own English. I am going to tell my friends about this programme and encourage them to get involved!”

Rowan Miller, Head of Funding for the South West of England at The National Lottery Community Fund, said:

“At The National Lottery Community Fund we believe that when people are in the lead, communities thrive and Mother Tongue is a fantastic demonstration of that.

“The programme actively engages pregnant women from refugee communities with doulas who have similar life experiences, and are able to provide translation, care and support. These doulas have a unique skill set and I am pleased to see our funding being used to harness their knowledge and help women within their communities. It is thanks to National Lottery players that we are able to fund innovative projects like this.”

Thanks to National Lottery players, £30 million is raised every week for the UK’s good causes, and £41 billion has been distributed to 565,000 good causes across the UK since 1994.

Last year, we awarded over half a billion pounds (£588.2 million) of life-changing funding to communities across the UK. Over eight in ten (83%) of our grants are for under £10,000 - going to grassroots groups and charities across the UK that are doing great things to support their communities through these challenging times.

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