World Refugee Day

Every year on June 20th, World Refugee Day, we honor refugees and displaced people and families and the people who serve them.

With Syria ever present in the news, more people than ever are concerned about the crises and traumas that force people to flee their homes and risk their lives in search of safety.

While Syria has grabbed global attention with images of refugees washing up on shores by the thousands, it isn’t the only refugee crisis we face in the world today. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is a non-profit organization that responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises and helps people devastated by conflict and disaster. IRC estimates that 60 million people are currently displaced and 42,500 are on the move every day as a result of extreme political strife, famine, drought, violence and poverty. Among those, the Women’s Refugee Committee estimates that between 6 and 14% of female refugees between the ages of 15 and 49 could be pregnant. This includes:

  • More than 4 million Syrians who’ve fled their homes to escape a brutal civil war
  • 2 million Iraqis who require humanitarian assistance because of violence and conflict caused by extremist groups
  • More than 2 million Nigerians who’ve been displaced while living under almost constant attack by Boko Haram
  • More than 324,000 El Salvadorans who were displaced in 2015 due to gang violence.
  • Almost 1 million people in the Central African Republic who are displaced because of violence and sectarian conflict

And that’s the tip of the iceberg.

Susan Kotcher, Every Mother Counts’ Executive Director, spent years working with IRC. She says, “There are more refugees and displaced people in the world today than ever and we estimate that 80% are women and children. Many of these women and children face medical, psychosocial and safety challenges that most of us will never fully comprehend. The strength, courage and determination they bring on their journey is partly motivated by desperation, but also by hope for a better future. Moms especially hope for a safe home where they can raise their children. We see their strength mirrored by the humanitarian workers who risk their lives to support them on their journeys.”

Anna Franceschi is Deputy Director of Circle of Health International (COHI), a non-profit organization that works with women in times of crisis to ensure access to reproductive, maternal, and newborn care and a recipient of an Every Mother Count’s grant. Franceschi shared one mother’s story, “A woman who was nine-months pregnant recently arrived at the Family Compound Clinic in Camp Moria on the Island of Lesvos and immediately went into labor. A COHI midwife who was working in the clinic transferred and accompanied her to a Greek hospital where she gave birth to a healthy, beautiful girl. The next day this little family continued traveling north to Germany. Not much rest for a weary mother! That’s how determined and desperate refugees feel. They rest very little and sacrifice so much in order to reach safety. And for a pregnant mother to travel at nine months means she had no other options.”

The United States welcomes a small number of refugees and also receives others who have traveled in seek of refuge. Franceschi says, “In the COHI-supported clinic near the Texas border we see a lot of women who’ve travelled from Central America and Africa to seek refuge. Many need pregnancy testing or prenatal care. We may only have them in our care for a split second before they move on, but we offer whatever we can in terms of healthcare support and reassurance. When we identify a problem, very often these mothers are still trying to reach her final destination and they can’t access more advanced services right away. In those situations, all we can do is educate her about the follow-up care she’ll need and cross our fingers.”

Franceschi says many of the women COHI serves live difficult lives and face complicated health issues. “We recently saw a group of women from Eritria who’d travelled for two years along with their children before they reached the U.S. They’d been trafficked, smuggled and faced unbearable conditions. Virtually all women who are forced to flee their homes and safety networks are at high risk for human trafficking and sexual assault. Like most women we see, these Erigrian women hadn’t had any healthcare. Again, we do what we can, but it’s never enough.”

What’s it like for dedicated humanitarians to work in refugee situations? Franceschi says, “it’s incredibly valuable work and very stressful. We sincerely want to help these women and children. That’s why we get into this work, but so often, the needs are huge and the resources are limited. We’re essentially first responders at emergency points in peoples’ lives. We don’t get to know a woman’s outcome and it’s rate to find out if she ever reached safety. That can be tough to take. The biggest challenge many of us face is coming to terms with vicarious trauma. Too many of us avoid getting help because in contrast to what refugees deal with, our discomfort seems inconsequential. You can’t help but absorb their pain though and eventually, the trauma becomes apparent.”

Every Mother Counts is honored to acknowledge those who’ve been displaced and the brave humanitarians who risk their lives to support them on their journeys to safety. We also want to honor the people who are helping us create the Every Mother Counts humanitarian fund to support grassroots organizations that serve pregnant women in refugee and other crisis situations. Together, our shared commitment to vulnerable women and children will create the kind of world where we all want to live.

What can you do to help?

  • Join the United Nation’s #WithRefugeescampaign and sign their petition telling governments that they must work together and do their fair share for refugees.
  • Donate to Every Mother Counts and help support grants to organizations like Circle of Health International who help meet reproductive healthcare needs for refugee women and girls.
  • Learn more about the work we’re doing to help make pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother, everywhere.
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