A Calgary non-profit that supports pregnant Black women and families wants help to expand

Chinwe Achebe and her three-year-old son, Chukwudum, practice math at their home in Calgary.  (Dan McGarvey/CBC - image credit)
Chinwe Achebe and her three-year-old son, Chukwudum, practice math at their home in Calgary. (Dan McGarvey/CBC - image credit)

A grassroots non-profit that helps pregnant women arriving in Calgary, mostly from African countries, says demand is growing for Black-specific supports.

Immigrants from Africa are a growing demographic in the city and Clare Jagunna and her non-profit, Hands Lifting Hearts, is here to help.

Run by Jagunna and a small team of volunteers, her organization is focused on helping pregnant mothers arriving in Calgary with no friends, family or experience of life in Canada.

Since 2021 she's been helping newcomers with every aspect of settling into a new city and navigating parenthood.

It's something she says needs to be tailored to the Black experience by people that understand them and their journey.

Her organization provides pre-birth, labour and post birth support, help for women experiencing miscarriage and early disabilities among other things.

"We realized coming to a new country where you're probably alone with very little information, we need to integrate them into the community to make sure we settle them well and make Canada a new home," said Jagunna, who came to Canada from Nigeria.

She describes the relationship she forges with the newcomers she comes into contact with as a partnership.

She starts with finding them accommodation and covers everything from building a network of Black friends, helping them find jobs and connects them with mental health support and the medical help they'll need while starting a family.

"Sometimes we help connect them to doctors from their home countries, just to make them feel comfortable. When they see someone with the same colour and same language they are able to interact," she said.

"They are more open and it's like transitioning from home to home, not from home to a no man's land," she said.

Jagunna also helps immigrants battle the loneliness and separation from family, who would usually play a big part in a pregnancy and welcoming a new baby into the world.

"Back home with a new baby everybody is all over you, they want to help in every way and when the baby comes everyone is excited. It's like that adage one woman bears the child but the whole community looks after the child."

She says new mums arriving from African countries need a support network to succeed and thrive.

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

"We drive them to medical appointments, to shopping, make a baby plan, and being there in the labour room," said Jagunna, adding that many African men don't accompany their wives during labour.

Her group of around ten volunteers gets womens' homes ready for coming back from hospital, cleaning and preparing quality meals to make the first days and weeks easier, even providing volunteers to help with the baby to give mums some respite.

Women that have received help through Jagunna's organization says the difference it made to their lives is difficult to put into words.

Chinwe Achebe can't hold back the tears when she talks about the support she found after arriving in Canada from Nigeria four years ago, pregnant and with no supports in place.

"It was super tough. I don't know if it was my saddest moment or my miracle moment," said Achebe. "It wasn't funny, being a new mum, being in a new country, it was so hard I can't explain it."

Achebe says being connected with other women in the same situation, and with others who've gone through the same experiences themselves, was a huge help.

"For me community is highly important. You can't do without it, you'd be lost, confused, everything. We all need support coming to a new place where everything is overwhelming."

Jagunna opened her home to Achebe, providing her and her family with a place to live in her first days and weeks here.

"When I think about it, it's amazing. Every day when I see Clare I say she was God sent. She doesn't know us from anywhere, she doesn't know my family, my parents. Who does that?," she says, wiping her eyes behind her glasses.

"She gave me a home, a parent, she was everything. We didn't know left from right, we didn't know what to do. She showed me another version of life and it changed my narrative on life. You don't need to know a person, just be good and be all you can be," said Achebe.

As part of the support, Achebe and her husband were also connected to key settlement agencies including: Centre for Newcomers, Calgary Catholic Immigration Society and Calgary Immigrant Women's Association.

"She made me realize that support is everywhere."

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

Four years later, Achebe sits at the kitchen table in her southeast home with her three-year-old son, Chukwudum, taking a short screen break from her job while flipping through the pages of a math workbook.

She got here one step at a time, crediting Jagunna and her volunteers for her and her husband's success to date in both her life and career.

Achebe says Jagunna now needs support herself to help more mothers and families like hers, with more and more new arrivals coming to Alberta from African countries.

Jagunna says she's starting to get lots of referrals and her organization is getting busier as word spreads about the help she offers.

"People say 'I have this couple coming, or have this woman coming, can you support her?', and I've supported Nigerians, Ghanaians, Kenyans and people from Senegal, and other communities."

While she needs to cover the costs of gas, baby supplies and food, to her it's about something much bigger.

"Having that avenue to give myself completely to humanity, that gives me a lot of satisfaction. Yes, I need money, but when you serve the people the money comes after. It gives me satisfaction and joy to help women," she said.

Jagunna takes donations and raises money via her Hands Lifting Hearts website and word of mouth to fund her work but says the next step in 2023 is applying for grants and government funding to expand the unique service she offers.

"It's about building relationships that last a long time," she said.

"We intend to build a community."