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Good News from the Middle East!

Brooke A. Schumacher, MD
Dhahran Saudi Arabia
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 41 No. 3, June-July 2005, pp. 60-61.

It seems every newscast has a story about the Middle East: tension in Jerusalem... war in Baghdad... La Leche League in Dhahran? That's right—some good news from the Middle East! For about 25 years, mothers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia have been enthusiastically carrying out the LLL mission of mother-to-mother support of breastfeeding. Officially, La Leche League International considers the Middle East a "developing area," but LLL is not new to Dhahran.

Our Group was founded around 1980 in Dhahran. My good friend, Pam Yelle, moved here soon after with her family. She was a member in those early days when the meetings included focusing first on mothers with infants and then on toddler needs. The Group grew so quickly that the Leaders decided to split the Group to focus on infant and toddler issues separately. Pam moved back to the United States where she became an LLL Leader in 1986, and then returned to Saudi Arabia in 1987, reviving the Dhahran Group. Ten years later, when Pam again returned to the USA, there were several LLL Leaders for the Dhahran Group. Eventually, all the founding Leaders moved away, and LLL fell quiet here.

Pam Yelle returned to Dhahran for a third time. In September 2000, I helped her resurrect the Group, round up Library materials, and publicize meetings. I became a Leader with Pam's guidance and began leading the Group in February 2003. Pam's children are grown and she is now pursuing other interests. Though Pam may have been a few years too late to be a "founder" of our Group, she is the strongest link between the Group's founding and the women who make up Dhahran LLL today. I salute Pam Yelle for all the love, time, and energy she has put in, often single-handedly, to keep La Leche League alive in Saudi Arabia. It goes to show how much of an impact one mother can have!

Our Group currently has about 15 members with 10 to 15 mothers at each meeting. We meet in Dhahran in Saudi Aramco's large residential compound. While our meetings are in English, English is not the first language for about half of our Group's members. At any one time, translations are going on in Italian, Arabic, French, and Hungarian, to name just a few! Most of our Group members live at Aramco, but one or two mothers per meeting also come from other compounds. We are almost all married, educated, stay-at-home mothers. This is because most of us are expatriates (i.e., not living in our home country). Our husbands were hired in Saudi because they are specialists in something the oil industry needs. Saudi laws limit the employment options for women here; however, the companies pay well enough that families often find there is no need for two incomes.

It is such a privilege and awesome responsibility to be the Leader of the only Group in Saudi Arabia. We added Saudi Arabia and our Group to the LLLI Web site last year. Also listed is Stacey Greaves, a Leader in Hail, many hours north of Dhahran. Stacey and I get many calls and emails from all over the Middle East, including Riyadh and Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and most recently Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai. Along with email requests for breastfeeding help, I am often asked about Saudi customs by curious women in the USA. Some of these inquiries pertain to breastfeeding in Saudi Arabia: for example, will a Saudi woman be punished if she breastfeeds in public? (No, she will not.)

Some of the inquiries are not about breastfeeding at all, but just about living in Saudi Arabia in general. Since breastfeeding in public generates the most curiosity, both at our meetings and in emails, I will explain here. For non-Muslim women like me, public breastfeeding is much like anywhere in the USA. We try to be as discreet as possible, not "showing anything." Muslim women usually wear an abaya, or black cloak, and I often notice little feet sticking out! The abaya, it turns out, is the perfect breastfeeding cover-up. Actually, this and other Saudi customs can serve to make public breastfeeding easier than in many parts of the world. Another example is the seating in restaurants. All restaurants have separate areas for single men and for families. Many also have a women-only section. In the family section, there are usually folding screens or curtains to give the family complete privacy while they are dining. I have found either the screen/curtain or the ladies-only section a perfect place to feed my nurslings.

We really enjoy our unique surroundings over here in Saudi. For most of us, we can truly put our families first, which is right in line with La Leche League philosophy. I am glad to be a part of the LLL outreach to support breastfeeding mothers all over the world. I couldn't do what I do here, though, if it were not for the wonderful women who support me in the International Division (ID), most notably my former Regional Administrator of Leaders (RAL), Beckie Oxley in Japan, the International Division Treasurer, Cecily Harkins in Portland, and the current Regional Administrator of Leaders for Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, Iona Macnab, in Tokyo, Japan.

Whenever I have had questions as a new Leader or a lone Leader far away from home, the women in ID have been glad to help me. Supporting each other one-to-one works at every level in La Leche League.

Brooke Schumacher is an obstetrical-gynecological physician by training and a stay-at-home mother by choice. Her husband is also an obstetrician. They have three children: Lily (5) and Karl and Peter (3). They live in Saudi Arabia where Brooke is an LLL Leader of the Dhahran Group and also involved with Daisy Girl Scouts. Please send your articles and ideas for this column to Nancy Spahr at 174 E. Main St., Peru, Indiana 46970 USA; fax to 765-472-3889; or email Nspahr at llli.org.

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