“You are welcome, we want you there. As a parent, you can join whenever it suits you”. This is the message that community worker Aslihan Kaplan and parenting support worker Cara Van Dam use to welcome Roma parents when coming to Ouderklap for the first time.
Launched in the fall of 2021, Ouderklap is a ‘play and meeting group’ for Roma families with young children and families with young children without a Roma background in Kallo, a small district of Beveren in Flanders, Belgium.
After one year of work at the helm of this initiative, in this article, Aslihan and Cara share their experiences.
Located in a district with a great diversity of residents, Ouderklap welcomes Roma children aged 0 to 6 years and their mothers and fathers on Friday afternoons. In the community room, twice a month the play mats are brought out and the toys are ready for children, while the room smells of coffee and tea for the parents.
“I finally got to take a shower, not a dot on my head but loose hair. Finally, something else than being busy with the children because I have been doing nothing else than caring for others for 6 years. I also want to go back to work, and have my baby go to childcare, because I always worked before I met my partner.“
The meaning of encounters for parents
The center offers Roma parents a place they can have to themselves, where they can meet other mothers who have similar experiences about raising their children and sharing doubts and experiences with other parents, which has been revealed as a great source of support. It is also a place where they can play together and discover new experiences with their children. Some of the topics parents have shared their experiences on include:
- How to introduce sleep routines since older children keep each other awake?
- My child is being bullied at school. What can I do?
- How do you stay calm yourself when children are angry or excited? What helps and what doesn’t?
- Partner help and involvement in parenting
Ouderklap also became a safe space for Roma mothers to allow their sub-identities in addition to being mothers. As one mother put it, “I finally got to take a shower, not a dot on my head but loose hair. Finally, something else than being busy with the children because I have been doing nothing else than caring for others for 6 years. I also want to go back to work, and have my baby go to childcare, because I always worked before I met my partner.”
It also became a place for them to unwind and have a medium to share frustrations and make concrete steps when they felt ready. Cara noticed that it is important to be aware if mothers just need to vent or want to find a solution to something. For example, mothers could say things like, “My kids go to sleep really late, they don’t listen when I send them to bed. But it’s also not healthy because you can see they don’t get enough sleep, and then they cannot get out of bed.” So as a facilitator, Cara can guide the conversation using questions like “What have you tried? And how is it now? Is that enough for you? Did you just want to be able to talk about it now or are you willing to do something about it too?” And if they’re ready, she would guide the discussions to come up with solutions together.
Is pancake baking family supportive?
During the implementation of the Ouderklap sessions, Aslihan and Cara noticed the need for the initiative to first grow into a safe place and later, from that trust, to also be a place where questions on all kinds of topics could be discussed. It was always up to the local residents to decide what they felt like doing. One might like to make pancakes together, another to go on an excursion, while some prefer to simply practice their Dutch language skills. This variety of interests then raises the question about the value of ‘Ouderklap’, is this really family supportive?
What is supportive for parents is very diverse, what energises one might not for another. According to Cara and Aslihan, family support is about initiatives that can be supportive at moments where people need to recharge to then take up their parenting role again.
Keeping thresholds low
While hesitation to participate and maintaining an equally safe environment for everyone remains a challenge, Cara and Alishan learned that making the participants co-responsible for the group process is key. This implied flexibility from them as facilitators during their nine-months exploration. They not only organized outdoor activities to increase visibility in the neighborhood, but also experimented with handing out soups at schools and knocking on doors. Having a familiar face, such as Aslihan, whom is the neighborhood community worker, also proved to lower the barrier to participate for both mothers and fathers.
For Aslihan and Cara, their ambition is to empower Roma mothers. While both fathers and mothers are welcome, they noticed that engagement came mostly from mothers. They are determined to create a safe environment to strengthen these mothers to do or say what she has long desired for both herself and her children. Whether it be setting boundaries, allowing sub-identities to be present, or simply being able to come to the center, Ouderklap has succeeded in building a meaningful place, with and for local residents.
Authors: Cara Van Dam and Liesbeth Lambert
Photos: Courtesy of Ouderklap