How to help newly arrived refugees build resilience

As countries begin integrating refugees in large numbers, aid groups see that some are re-learning how to trust after traumatic experiences, and they are experimenting with more integrated approaches to helping them.

Visar Kryeziu/AP
Migrants and refugees wait outside the registration camp near the southern Macedonian town of Gevgelija, Tuesday. Aid organizations are developing new approaches to helping refugees adapt as their numbers increase.

Refugees on the move from the Middle East are intent on reaching countries of safety, but aid groups in Western countries are beginning to worry about how to make them feel safe once they arrive, given the level of trauma they endured before and during their journey. 

The complex needs of today's refugees are not necessarily any different from the needs of those fleeing past conflicts, but the sheer number of them who are struggling with multiple issues relating to trauma while trying to become acclimated in a foreign land has underscored the need for aid organizations to take a holistic, integrated approach.

The flow of refugees into Europe is currently at 8,000 per day and climbing, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and many of them have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, according to a review published in The Lancet. Even though many countries, individuals, churches, and civic groups are working tirelessly to meet their needs and help them settle into new homes, many of those struggling to build their lives anew may feel hampered by lingering trauma associated with the horrors that made them refugees.

"They often say they have been imprisoned, beaten all day long, shot at, or scalded with boiling water," psychotherapist Aurelia Barbieri, who is working with charity Medecins Sans Frontieres in Sicily, told Reuters. "They've been treated like beasts."

Ms. Barbieri said after their physical needs of food, clothing, and a safe shelter have been met, those who have travelled from Syria and Afghanistan may seek "psychological first aid," which in practice means someone who can listen with compassion to help them process their traumatic experiences.

"What I hope to do is first of all is listen," Barbieri told Reuters. "When they can feel they're in a protected place, they can start talking about their trauma."

The approaches to the problem vary. The London-based Helen Bamber Foundation hosts a series of sessions where participants can discuss past trauma. Such discussions, the head therapist Katy Robjant told Reuters, helped them place their experiences and their fear in the past – where it belongs. 

"You learn that you don't have to be afraid of your memories," Ms. Robjant told Reuters.

At the Refugee Therapy Centre, also based in London, the focus is on the present. Refugees who come to the refurbished piano factory where it is housed receive practical guidance on cultural adjustment, schooling, finding housing, and securing jobs.

The center's clinical director, Aida Alayarian, told Reuters that rather than rehash unpleasant memories, this helps people build resilient confidence as they learn to tackle problems in a new country. 

This report contains material from Reuters.

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