Many refugee and displaced women have gone through their pregnancies with no regular check-ups by midwives, no 12-week scans, no antenatal classes... They’ve faced war and persecution, survived in camps during the winter -- and now they have COVID-19 to worry about. 

In places like northeast Syria and Bangladesh facing humanitarian crises, COVID-19 has stretched already strained health systems to their limits. As hospitals fill up with coronavirus patients, maternity services risk being squeezed, leaving pregnant women and their newborn babies without adequate care. 

Our teams of committed midwives and doctors are going to the toughest-to-reach places to be there for women, during their pregnancy and beyond. Here’s how we help at every stage.

In the first nine months...​

In Yemen, our mobile health clinics drive to remote locations where families have found refuge away from war to provide critical care to pregnant women. Often, these expectant mothers would not have any other access to medical help. Yemen is on the brink of a famine, so providing enough food and nutrients is a crucial part of the support.

A pregnant woman wearing a face mask
Our centre in Colombia provides pregnant Venezuelan women with the support they need right through their pregnancy.
Photo: Schneyder Mendoza/IRC

In Colombia, we’re supporting pregnant women who have fled violence and extreme poverty in neighbouring Venezuela. Our centre, which provides pre- and post-natal care, as well as family planning services and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, is on the Colombian border. To ensure we’re keeping women safe during the pandemic, we’ve implemented social distancing, temperature checks and made sure staff have appropriate protective gear.

Two IRC staff members in a tent
In Greece, our team of dedicated volunteers go tent-to-tent in the camp delivering soap and providing information about COVID-19, to arm pregnant women with the knowledge to stay safe from the coronavirus.
Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/IRC

The threat of COVID-19 can make an already stressful situation even more difficult for refugee women about to give birth. In refugee camps, coronavirus testing is rare and misinformation about the virus spreads rapidly. We provide soap and water and have trained up volunteers to go tent-to-tent in camps in Greece and Bangladesh, to ensure that women have the information they need to protect themselves during their pregnancy. 

At the birth...

In Sierra Leone, researchers found that clinic closures and reduced reproductive health care services during the Ebola epidemic led to as many as 4,900 deaths of mothers and babies between 2014 and 2015. 

Grave lessons have been learnt from the Ebola crisis and it’s essential that maternity services stay open during the COVID-19 pandemic. The IRC has adapted our programmes, created isolation centres and implemented protective clothing, to ensure we can continue to deliver babies safely.

Dr. Lilian Mumbua and her team prepare an expectant mother with COVID-19 for surgery to deliver her baby by emergency C-section
Dr. Lilian Mumbua and her team prepare an expectant mother with COVID-19 for surgery to deliver her baby by emergency C-section in our clinic in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.
Photo: IRC

Last month, in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, we helped a first-time refugee mother, who had tested positive for COVID-19, deliver her daughter safely. 22-year-old Aamiina*, from Somalia, came to the IRC clinic with respiratory problems and was quickly given a COVID test. She was treated for her COVID symptoms but after 12 hours, had not progressed far enough in her labour. The team made the decision to conduct a C-section. Dressed in full protective gear, the IRC’s Dr Lilian Mumbua operated successfully and both mum and baby are doing well. 

Aamiina is just one of many women who have given birth during the pandemic with our support. Their strength and resilience are a daily inspiration for our frontline teams around the world.

In those first few months... 

New mums living in camps in places like northeast Syria and Greece, are doing all they can to make sure their newborns stay warm whilst living outside in tents. As another winter approaches, this is going to get even tougher. We’re supporting mothers with newborn baby kits, which have items like blankets, nappies and clothes inside.

Woman holding a sleeping baby
In Greece, we’re providing essential items to help mothers like Ikram Ismail, from Syria, to keep their babies warm this winter.
Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/IRC

Um Tamer* has been displaced several times within her home country of Syria with her five children, including baby Zainab. Her pregnancy was incredibly difficult. “When I was pregnant, I was so stressed all the time, it was freezing. In the beginning, it didn’t sink in that we’re in a camp and that we have to live here.”

Um Tamer cradles her daughter Zainab in her tent in Areesha refugee camp in Syria.
Um Tamer cradles her daughter Zainab in her tent in Areesha refugee camp in Syria. She’s doing everything she can to make sure Zainab stays warm over winter.
Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/IRC

The IRC provided Um Tamer with a newborn baby kit with essentials she needed to take care of her daughter. “When you have a newborn, things are expensive,” Um Tamer explains. “I was given the kit when she was five months old, it came at a really good time. Everything in it is useful: the clothes keep her warm because they have long sleeves, the nappies are important... I would advise other mothers in the camp to protect their newborns as much as possible from the cold.”

As they look to the future… 

We’re giving parents the tools to ensure their children remain healthy as they go through life. Every year, 50 million children across the world suffer from acute malnutrition, and 80% of them are unable to access care. After four years of research, the IRC has developed a groundbreaking new way of treating acute malnutrition.

Binta and her baby Ali
Binta, a mother from northeast Nigeria, celebrates the recovery of her 10-month-old baby Ali, who is back to his former self after receiving the IRC’s groundbreaking treatment for acute malnutrition.
Photo: Tom Saater/IRC

The treatment has helped support mums like Binta, who was terrified when her 10-month-old son Ali started vomiting and had a fever. Like thousands of other families in northeast Nigeria, Binta had no income to pay for a doctor or pharmacy after armed groups forced her out from her village.Her livelihood disappeared overnight. Our clinic provides free care to children so they can recover from acute malnutrition. Parents like Binta are now armed with the knowledge and expert medical support to keep their babies safe and healthy. “I’m so relieved," Binta says of her son's recovery. "Because of the IRC, he’s back to normal.”

*Names changed for protection