Janda, a 24-year-old volunteer health worker at Darashakran Camp for Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, starts her day early. She came to Darashakran when her family left Hassaka, Syria, two years ago and crossed into Iraq. At the time, she was enrolled in nursing school, but when her family fled the conflict she lost her chance to finish her studies.
Now in her new life Janda and a cadre of volunteers at the camp work with pregnant women and new mothers to provide prenatal and post-natal counseling and care. Mothers from Darashkran camp bring a new baby into this world about once every day, so Janda has to be alert and active. Early in the morning, with her supervisor and the other volunteers, Janda gathers her equipment and outlines the day’s work plan.
Refugee camps offer basic health services but lack the facilities and staff to provide the full range of health care that people need. To fill this gap, UNICEF and the Directorate of Health established a volunteer network that could help promote healthy behaviors and refer people who need more substantial health care to nearby hospitals.
When Janda found out about this programme she approached the camp management and volunteered her services. With her experience, Janda was selected to be part of the volunteer network for maternal-child care that UNICEF supports with funding from the Kuwait Government.
To help her and the other volunteers to prepare for their role, UNICEF and the Directorate of Health organized training on the basics of maternal and child health care provision in the camp setting. Janda has participated in three of these training courses. After her training and two years providing services to pregnant and new mothers, she knows her duties, the mothers, and their children well.
I visited Darashakran Camp earlier this month and spent a day with Janda. First we went to visit a family where a mother had given birth to a baby boy named Mamu. Mothers do not give birth at the camp, but up until delivery, and soon after the baby is born, they are back in their temporary homes. Janda’s duties as a health volunteer include neo-natal check-ups to ensure the infants are doing well after their return to the camp. Janda reflected, “One of the challenges in the camp is that we don’t have birthing facilities so we have to refer mothers to nearby hospitals for delivery.”
Low birth weight is a problem for newborns in the camp as their mothers don’t eat well, and the stress of displacement and living in camps reduces their ability to produce milk, so they have to rely on supplementary feeding.
“But we still encourage exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months because this is best for the baby,” Janda declared.
Janda spoke with the mother, Noor, also from Syria who has already given birth to two daughters, about nutrition, including exclusive breastfeeding, how to monitor the baby’s growth, as well as immunization and other health behaviors to ensure the child’s well-being. Noor told us, “I am happy here, but I hope this is the last baby I have in a refugee camp, I want to go home.”
UNFPA supports families to space births with advice, antenatal care and family planning practices, as well as supporting gynecologists and midwives to help refugees take control of their reproductive health. Janda told us that the volunteers discuss safe birthing and make referrals to the local medical clinic for other family planning services. Noor loves her children and wants to make sure she can take care of them, and that requires not only their health, but hers as well.
After finishing her visit with Noor and her family, Janda walked across the camp to see a girl newly arrived in Darashakran along with about 3000 others who fled the fighting in Kobane, Syria, just four months ago. The camp already had about 10,000 residents, and now with the influx of these additional refugees, resources are more stretched.
The 20-year-old girl, Ahlam, left Kobane with her family and made her way to Darashakran via Turkey. This is her first pregnancy, and at three months, her face expresses the worry and stress she bears after her ordeal and the fears for her unborn child. Janda talks calmly to her, and gives her advice on her diet and tells her not to let the stress get to her.
From the tents of the newly arrived Kobane refugees, Janda took us to the Baby Hut where pregnant women and new mothers gather. The Baby Huts give women the necessary space to breastfeed in private, to receive counseling and to let their other children play while they tend to their infants. UNICEF, with funding from the Government of Japan, has established these Baby Huts in all of the nine formal refugee camps, and is establishing them in the 25 camps across Iraq for the over 2.6 million internally displaced people as well.
So far this year, over 100 mothers at Darashkran Camp have given birth, so Janda and her colleagues have their work cut out for them. But Janda loves her job. “I love babies and children, and I’m so happy to be able to help my people.”
Then in simple French she says, J’aime mon travail, with a broad smile stretching across her face. “I miss my friends and life in Syria, and I worry about them, but I hope things will get better soon and I can go back to finishing my nursing degree.”
Jeffrey Bates is the Chief of Communications for UNICEF Iraq