November 30, 2023
Born in a Refugee Camp, Paw Paw Finds Support in Iowa
Born in a Thai refugee camp, Paw Paw gave birth to her first child in the same camp. And it wasn’t easy. “It took me three days and three nights to have that baby,” says Paw Paw, speaking through EveryStep interpreter Moo Psawhtee, who also speaks Karen, the language of the Karen ethnic group, which makes up most of the population of the refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma border. “After I gave birth to my son, I had a lot of bleeding that lasted for a year. Over there, they just let us be — they don’t do anything.”
Pictured above: EveryStep community doula Sarah Yak; Paw Paw and Daisy; EveryStep interpreter Moo Psawhtee
Paw Paw brought that painful memory with her when she and her family left the refugee camp and came to Iowa nearly four years ago. Because of the trauma of that first birthing experience, Paw Paw was fearful of another pregnancy until six years later, when her friends told it would be different in Iowa. “They told me it’s not that bad over here, that they take care of you really well and I decided I would try again.”
How support changed everything
While the birth of her second son was quite improved physically, Paw Paw says it was difficult culturally, since she nor her husband speak English. “We didn’t know what to do or how to understand what was happening.” Shortly after that birth, Paw Paw learned about EveryStep, and case manager Sipo Ra entered the picture.
“Sipo speaks Karen, so it’s easy to communicate with her. She gave me her phone number so I can call her anytime, like when I need help with the internet or when I think I have received an important email.” Soon, Sipo also received a call from Paw Paw letting her know she was expecting another baby. “She helped me with all the appointments and gave me all the information I should know.” Sipo also helped enroll Paw Paw in EveryStep’s Stork’s Nest, an educational incentive program for new and expecting moms who live in Polk County and meet income guidelines. Paw Paw used the points she earned to buy diapers, a car seat and other essential items. Sipo also told her about EveryStep’s Doula services, where she met Sarah Yak.
Originally from South Sudan, Sarah became a doula to provide the support and advocacy she felt she lacked when she developed complications after giving birth to her two sons there. “It was a wake-up call for me,” says Sarah. “Back then I thought once you have the baby, you only must think about the baby, not yourself. Now I want to help other women with not only having a healthy baby, but also being a healthy mom.”
"In my culture, the provider decides the testing and tells you what to do. You don’t ask questions. Most of the clients I work with do not have the experience of advocating for themselves, so imagine if you are pregnant and there are a lot of things you need to understand, and you don't have that understanding of how to advocate for yourself.”
Paw Paw says the birth of her third baby, Daisy, was nothing like the first two and it’s because she had Sarah by her side. “She was waiting at the hospital for me and she made the room smell good,” says Paw Paw. “She gave me a massage so I was comfortable. Before they did anything, she always asked if it was something I wanted. Sarah made such a big difference.”
When Daisy was born, she had some health problems that required her to stay at the hospital for a short time after her mother was discharged. Paw Paw says Sarah again was there to help. “While we were staying there, Sarah visited us and checked on the baby. She helped us order food because we didn’t know how and also brought food for us.”
Advocating for their birth wishes
With a background as a medical interpreter and public health professional, Sarah believes she has a responsibility to share what she has learned since coming to the United States. “Being a doula is a way for me to give back. I know most of the challenges of being a newcomer or refugee, and I want to help them understand the health system. I also make sure I’m advocating for them and their birth wishes are being respected.
“In my culture, the provider decides the testing and tells you what to do. You don’t ask questions. Most of the clients I work with do not have the experience of advocating for themselves, so imagine if you are pregnant and there are a lot of things you need to understand about yourself or your baby, and you don't have that understanding of how to advocate for yourself. That’s what I’m here to help them do.”
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