Initiative empowers refugee and migrant women

Before Florence Ackey, MSW knew what public health was, she was inquisitive about prevention. Having lost her 12 year old cousin during her young childhood, she found herself perpetually asking “How can I make things better?”

A lifelong investigator and learner, Ackey completed two years of law school in her home country Niger followed by completion of the University of South Florida Master’s of social work. She is currently pursuing a second master’s degree and will begin her doctorate in public health in fall 2019. She recently completed the Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC).

Ackey serves as the State Refugee Health Coordinator for the Florida Department of Health Immunization, and Refugee Services. In this position, she connected with a woman who would inspire her to found Refugee and Migrant Women’s Initiative (RAMWI), a not for profit 501(c)(3) which serves and empowers refugee and migrant women during their resettlement.

This particular woman would come to Ackey’s office almost every day and sometimes simply sit with her. Despite a language barrier, Ackey eventually learned that the woman was lonely and depressed; she couldn’t have children, and her husband was out of work.

These circumstances caused great strife, but connecting with Ackey uplifted her spirit.

Mindful of her mental health, Ackey helped cultivate a social circle around this woman. At the same time, Ackey was driven to incorporate a practical component to the gatherings,  so she taught the women to crochet.

“We made a lot of scarves,” she remembers. “We sold them and [the woman] was able to raise enough money to pay for two months rent. It changed her confidence.”

Ultimately, their informal, weekend meetings grew too large for home meetings, so RAMWI was created. Today RAMWI, run entirely by volunteers, has served over 400 families over roughly six years.

“It’s just beautiful to see how far we’ve come,” Ackey says.

Refugee and migrant women suffer from things like trauma, discrimination and anxiety.

Ackey explains: Often the story goes that the woman arrives with her husband and children from their home country; the husband finds work and grows a social life and the children go to school and make friends. In the meantime, the woman is left alone at home, sometimes too uneasy about the unfamiliarity of their new settlement to leave the confines of her home. Even when her family returns from their daily routines, she’s further isolated because their experiences become less and less common and relatable.

In light of this phenomenon, RAMWI offers corresponding, age-appropriate workshops for mothers and children in order to bridge conversation topics.

“The mom is no longer left alone; she has something she can contribute,” Ackey explains.

RAMWI offers its social, support network and classes and workshops in a way that allows women to integrate into their new communities while still preserving their cultural identity. For instance, RAMWI’s Annual International Fashion Show during Welcoming Week offers refugees and migrant women the opportunity to share pride in their culture through clothing.

Participants pose during the Annual International Fashion Show during Welcoming Week
Photo courtesy of RAMWI

The show usually represents about 48 countries with over 80 participants.

Monthly support groups cover topics like women’s health, grief and coping mechanism, U.S. healthcare system and resources, nutrition, safety, domestic violence, disaster preparedness, life balance and personal finances among other topics.

Ackey emphasizes that female empowerment doesn’t need to be granted externally.

“Women have the power within in them to freely give,” she begins.

She goes on to describe a visual installation she’ll present at an upcoming RAMWI session to illustrate this idea.

Ackey asks participants questions like ‘Have you helped someone without anything in return?’ or ‘Have you paid a genuine compliment to someone?’ Each time a participant answers ‘yes’, she pokes a hole with a thumbtack into a blank board. The holes initially appear to be randomly placed, but when a light shines through the back of the board, the silhouette of a decorated city appears. The installation represents the seemingly small acts of women impacting entire communities.

This month, RAMWI members will assemble 240 care packages for the homeless.

RAMWI participants at a monthly meeting
Photo courtesy of RAMWI

When it comes to infant feeding, migrant women often look to formula as a status symbol. It’s a mindset Ackey encounters often, but she says the lactation counselor training course has equipped her to become a better healthy infant feeding advocate.

Ackey has also found that hospital staff generally do not take the time to discuss and educate migrant women about breastfeeding. She predicts this is sometimes due to language barriers.

“It’s easier to give them formula and go,” she explains.

Mothers are often happy with the “gift” of formula and all of the “swag” that can come along with formula feeding.  

Surely birth and infant feeding culture varies greatly among the women in RAMWI, but Ackey has found that immigrant women tend to share the common value of a strong mother -child bond which stems from their collective upbringing, she explains.  

Mother and child, one of Ackey’s favorite photos
Photo courtesy of RAMWI

She shares that this “it takes a village” mentality is reflected in the way they feed their babies.

“Women take care of all the children,” says Ackey.

In some cases, women breastfeed children that are not biologically their own in the spirit of shared duties, but for survival in other circumstances.

“Women breastfeed other children especially from some African countries,” Ackey begins.

She recalls one woman who adopted a child she picked up on the road next to the dead body of his mother. Ackey makes clear this imagery isn’t representative of the entire refugee population, but it is a story that embodies how the women she works with will raise any child.

Amidst the tragedy and hardship that many of the families have faced, there’s so much beauty and hope within RAMWI.

“Hope can, and will heal the world,” its mantra.

One volunteer said:  “The thing I love the most is the environment of support and empowerment that RAMWI creates for women from all over the world…the women learn from each other…form a bond that as women is something that connects you no matter where you are from.”

For Ackey, success is achieved when a woman makes a choice because she has been fully informed and she’s aware of all of her options.  

Visit https://www.ramwi.org/ for more information. Connect with RAMWI on Facebook here.  

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