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15 volunteers for new mom — a community tackles postpartum depression in Calgary

In Calgary’s northeast, a small non-profit has a unique way to fight postpartum depression and anxiety. 

Called Porridge with Love, the program from the Immigrant Outreach Society is modelled on cultural traditions from Ethiopia. 

They hold a special prayer and ceremony at the mother’s house within days of the birth, then 15 volunteers — many of them mothers and seniors in the community — sign up to cook, clean and take her to vaccinations or just to come over and have coffee.

Doctors who work in this field are impressed.

“That is just fantastic. I’m just so impressed because social isolation is huge,” said Dr. Deirdre Ryan, B.C.-based co-founder of the Canadian Alliance for Maternal Mental Health. “It would be lovely if (programs like this) were all over the country.”

The alliance estimates up to 20 per cent of new moms experience mood and anxiety disorders after birth.

A group of women wearing traditional Ethiopian clothes.
Some of the volunteers with Immigrant Outreach Society join a celebration to welcome a new baby and support the mother. (Submitted by Adanech Sahilie)

She said rates are significantly higher for newcomers, who often experience trauma before or during the journey here and leave behind their family support network. 

The time during and after pregnancy is one of the most vulnerable times in a woman’s life, with hormones, sleeplessness, stress and increased responsibility. And it can also grow into something more serious: a sense of tearfulness, loss of joy and appetite, and at the extreme end psychosis and suicidal thougths.

Adanech Sahilie leads the Immigrant Outreach Society. She said Porridge with Love started four years ago, when she and others were shocked by the number of newcomers who ended up in hospital because of mental health challenges. 

She also noticed how isolating the experience of parenting can be in Canada and decided to try to replicate the best of the traditions from Ethiopia.

“Back home, when a mom gets pregnant, everybody — even neighbours and villagers — will come and help prepare porridge, oats, anything that she can use. But when you come to Canada, like, you don’t have that much support,” Sahilie said.

A large ball of cooked dough has a well in the centre with a deep red liquid and small teaspoons around the outer rim.
Traditional barley porridge is served with chili-flavoured melted butter. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

Now they have 169 volunteers and they help up to four mothers a month, supporting them for a few weeks to several months and longer, depending on what they need.

“They take responsibility (for the mother), taking her to any vaccinations or giving help with groceries,” Sahilie said.

It’s simple, but it works, she said.

“We have this support network to fill the gaps. So this Porridge with Love really, really minimizes postpartum depression. (It’s one of) my favourite programs because, like, you see your fruit right away. Some of the mothers even become volunteers.”

Sahilie invited CBC Calgary to a welcome celebration for one mom in a small basement suite in northeast Calgary.

Before the rest of the guests arrived, Edom Gebremichael was toasting barley flour for porridge in the kitchen. 

“That’s the best flour, especially for breastfeeding mothers,” she said. They toast it, then add salt and water and keep cooking until it’s smooth. Then they serve it with a deep well in the centre filled with chili-flavoured melted butter.

Gebremichael said she volunteers regularly because she remembers what it was like the first time she gave birth. 

A woman stands next to a stove and stirs flour in a pan.
Edom Gebremichael toasts barley flour to make a traditional porridge, considered to be very healthy for breastfeeding mothers. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

“It was difficult for me. Nobody was there, just me and my husband. It was in Ontario, not in Calgary,” she said. “You feel loneliness. I would watch movies and then just play with the baby, just talk to him.

“But for my second one, I was here in Calgary,” she said. “Oh my God. All my friends, cousins — it was a big celebration for me.”

The basement suite was decorated with gold cloth, and with traditional items from Ethiopia — woven baskets and stringed instruments.

When the parents — mother Ruhama Alemu and father Alemneh Aligaz — came out of their bedroom for the guests, they were greeted with cheers and wrapped in traditional black and gold cloaks.

Alemu had tears in her eyes.

“I don’t even have words. It’s so amazing,” she said.

The couple arrived as refugees one month before the ceremony, when Alemu was already eight months pregnant.

They had been staying in a refugee camp in Kenya for three years before getting permission to come. They also have a five-year-old son, Peniel. 

Women sit in a circle around a large bowl of porridge.
Women share a taste of the traditional Ethiopian barley porridge as part of the celebration for a new mother in Calgary. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

“It was tough. It was tough and I was so stressed and anxious about the country,” she said. “I didn’t even get a health-care provider. I was rejected by some of the health-care providers because (they said it was) too late in the pregnancy.”

Several clinics suggested she should just go to emergency when her labour started, but the outreach society eventually helped her find a doctor to be assigned and support her care. Her baby was born healthy. They named her Yohana.

Volunteers have also helped gather equipment for the baby: a stroller and car seat.

Ryan said awareness of postpartum depression and anxiety has been increasing in recent years, leading to more women getting screened and treated.

Her organization has also seen a benefit from the increase in virtual options for health appointments, which came about as a result of the pandemic. It means a mother with multiple kids can get help without worrying about child care and transportation.

A baby sleeps wrapped in a blanket.
Baby Yohana Alemneh Amare was born one month after her family arrived in Calgary. (Submitted by Adanech Sahilie)

“Postpartum depression is common but it’s also very treatable,” she said.

Group therapy and counselling can help, and for more serious cases, there are medications that are safe for breastfeeding mothers.

Dr. Rachel Talavlikar, a physician with the Calgary Refugee Health Program, said she’s impressed with the Immigrant Outreach Society program.

She said trauma, isolation, stress and a history of depression or mental illness are risk factors for postpartum anxiety and depression, but even mothers without those risk factors can suffer.

One study local to Alberta found roughly 15 per cent of mothers have impacts that are serious enough to be diagnosed, she said. 

“If you look at the immigrant and newcomer communities, those rates are up to five times higher. It’s one of those things that is common yet also easy to miss.”

“People who have a village or something they can go to for support do better.… It certainly needs to be taken seriously.”


A graphic showing soccer players and women drinking coffee.
Sharing Knowledge: An invitation to all local East African communities. (Lianne Sabourin/CBC)

Last fall, CBC Calgary launched a new community project with local East African community members. This included a workshop to help young adults to tell stories of importance to their community and a joint celebration organized with community leaders. 

Read more at cbc.ca/sharingknowledge and check out other reporting sparked by this partnership.

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