By Kelli Hayes, Refugee Mental Health Administrative Assistant and co-facilitator of the IWW Group
Through a grant from the Rose Women’s Foundation, the Refugee Mental Health department recently facilitated an eight-week health and wellness initiative for a group of Iraqi women. The grant initiative was born out of an attempt to answer some known health risks associated with the Middle Eastern population, such as diabetes, hypertension, and malnutrition. In addition to these physical health risks, a large number of refugees experience the related burdens of anxiety, depression, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder while trying to navigate a new way of life in the U.S.
Many women also voice concerns about being seen in public places wearing a hijab, or head covering, expressly stating they do not feel safe getting out into the community. How can anyone build a social life if they don’t feel safe enough to leave their own home?
Before we started the group, our primary interpreter relayed major concerns while attempting to recruit women for the program. She said many were quite hesitant to gather together as an Iraqi women’s community because their home community in Iraq had become a place of mistrust and traumatic experiences. We interjected the assurances of meeting additional American volunteers to help them muster the courage to attend.
We were hoping for 13 Iraqi women to attend and were pleasantly surprised that in our first meeting, not only did 15 show up, but they became increasingly energized by one another’s company. Their main motivation to attend became the social aspect of gathering together. At the end of the program, the women demonstrated an overall 87.5 percent completion rate!
We collaborated with Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters to provide a six-week curriculum. Participants learned nutrition information and recipes, and received groceries each week to practice cooking at home. The nutrition and health information enabled women to be more health-conscious when cooking for their families. One woman shared that she and her husband felt better and her husband reported lowered cholesterol levels! Another woman is now advocating for less sugary snacks at class parties in her children’s school.
Each week we walked together as a group around Exposition Park in Aurora. We provided a walking log for each woman to track her steps between weekly sessions and encouraged them to walk with family members or friends. Kaiser Permanente provided pedometers, brightly colored shopping bags, and sleek purple metal water bottles for the women.
One woman shared that neither she nor her husband had previous knowledge regarding any benefits or purpose of physical exercise. She disclosed that since our program began she and her husband walked nearly every day together and she was able to shed more than five pounds in just eight weeks after having “tried everything” to lose weight. As the weeks progressed, we were thrilled to see the women sharing positive results with each other, including our ultimate goal of having a lasting impact on their entire families. Participant outcomes across 62% of the group revealed an overall increase in improved mood and energy.
Each week we experienced joy—eating together, indulging in making spa bath salts and chocolate facials, and discussions of self-care that incorporated some physical and mental health benefits of exercise and nutrition. We emphasized the importance of taking care of moms first, so they could in turn encourage their families.
The Denver Botanic Gardens generously donated admission passes for our last meeting, intermingling a pleasurable and beautiful walk with a privately guided docent tour. The program concluded with each woman being gifted with a personalized award certificate, a potted mini rose, and butterflies to signify the transformation that had occurred within each one. The women have been relentless in their requests for another such group and we are hopeful for similar future wellness groups.