Annette Green, Modi’in, Israel
Twenty percent of the population of Israel are Arab. With the exception of a few mixed cities, Israeli Arabs generally live in separate cities or neighbourhoods within larger cities. Arab children study in separate schools and contact between Hebrew and Arabic speaking children is rather limited.
Arabic is considered the second official language of Israel and is taught in many Israeli schools, but in practice few Hebrew-speaking Israelis are fluent enough to converse in Arabic. Many Arab-speaking Israelis are able to speak and read Hebrew but for religious, political and geographic reasons their lives are fairly separate.
To date, Israel has not had an Israeli Arab Leader. Over the years, there have been several Leaders who have tried to establish a Group in areas heavily populated by Israeli Arabs in order to support this part of the population. However, due to language barriers, difficulty organizing a meeting room and attracting mothers to attend, the Groups never continued past a meeting or two.
Israeli Arab women do not have as many resources to support them in their breastfeeding journeys as compared to other Israeli women. This is partly because of geographic and financial issues; however, there are also language and cultural barriers. Overall there are significantly fewer Arab professionals trained to give accurate breastfeeding information.
An Israeli Arab woman Ehdaa Ewesat Harel, recently helped LLL set up a meeting place in a small Arab town. She was active in a large Arab Israeli Facebook group about breastfeeding which was very useful for publicizing the meeting.
With much excitement, two Israeli Leaders, Sivan Ben Orr and Tal Dagan volunteered to host the meeting in an Arab town.
The most obvious challenge was how to communicate effectively in two languages when not everyone is fluent in both languages.
The meeting started with the Israeli Leaders talking in Hebrew and sharing information about La Leche League and how a meeting is conducted. Mothers who attended answered in Hebrew and switched to Arabic if it was difficult for them to express themselves in Hebrew. The switch to Arabic was more evident when the topic became more emotional.
Ehdaa translated some of the mothers’ conversation into Hebrew for the Leaders when she could. It was a challenging situation as the Leaders wanted to encourage mother-to-mother support and conversation between the mothers without language becoming a barrier. Sivan found there were parts of the meeting she did not understand but she relied on the mothers’ tone and body language to help interpret what was being expressed verbally.
It was interesting to note that some of the breastfeeding myths that the women shared were different from the ones Leaders hear from Israeli women.
Apparently one such myth that Israeli Arab grandmothers have shared is that drinking orange juice increases milk supply. One mother in the group shared that she gained 7kg (approximately 15 pounds) in two months after her baby was born because she drank litres of orange juice! Her relatives kept bringing her juice and encouraging her to drink it in order to ensure a full milk supply for her baby. It was not freshly squeezed orange juice that her grandmother might have had access to, but sugar-laden, highly processed orange juice.
There were other cultural differences that were new to the Leaders. Some of the women wore hijabs. The hijab is a thick veil traditionally worn by some Muslim women in the presence of adult males outside of their immediate family and outside the house. The hijab covers the head and chest.
Not being able to see the women’s hair made it more challenging to identify and remember the mothers during the meeting and between meetings.
Group meetings of this nature are unusual in Israeli Arab society so it was a new experience for everyone involved.
Lack of access to accurate breastfeeding information in Arabic meant that many mothers who attended did not have basic breastfeeding knowledge.
The mothers who attended the meeting were very grateful to the Leaders who made the effort to attend the meeting. They were open, curious and thirsty for more breastfeeding information in order to increase their success in breastfeeding. Sivan and Tal received a lot of encouragement and support from other Leaders in the Area to continue meetings in the Arab community.
It is heartwarming that our common desire to mother our babies through breastfeeding can overcome political, geographical and language barriers.
Tips for Leaders
- Be aware in advance that you will not be able to understand everything spoken at a bilingual meeting. It is usually impractical to have every word translated, especially if the meeting is large and you want to maintain the flow of conversation.
- When you don’t understand the language spoken, tone and body language become even more important.
- You can ask for someone to summarize what was discussed every now and then in order to make sure accurate information is being shared and stay informed.
- Before the meeting, looking up specific breastfeeding words in the unfamiliar language may help you to better understand what is discussed.
- Be aware that there may be unexpected cultural differences. This can impact style of dress, nursing in public—and myths and misconceptions about breastfeeding.
- Be open-minded and curious to discover what these differences are without judgment.
Get help from an “insider”
- The easiest way to cross language, cultural and practical barriers to establish meetings for minority mothers is to have an interested mother (or mothers) from the minority group to help you navigate the challenges.
Basic breastfeeding information
- Be prepared to start from the basics of good breastfeeding information without making assumptions of existing knowledge.
- Try to find good sources of breastfeeding information in their native language so that you can share in the meeting or afterwards.
Set realistic expectations
- Reaching across language and culture barriers and setting up a meeting in a new place can take time to establish and attract mothers.
- Set a reasonable time frame such as four to six months in order to give yourself time to make improvements and assess if a meeting is viable.
- Even meetings held sporadically or over a short period of time can be helpful in supporting mothers who may not have support at all.
- Create a support network for yourself so you have a place to share your experiences, learn from the meetings, and for support to continue your LLL work in this area.