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Creating a psychological first aid tool box

By Jessica Barry, IFRC

There is no lack of empathy amongst aid workers and volunteers for the migrants flocking to the Greek island of Lesvos from countries at war. But empathy alone is not enough to appreciate the desperation that drives people to abandon their home for journeys fraught with danger and uncertainty.

This is something that the Danish Red Cross psychosocial delegate Despina Constandinides emphasises in every ‘Psychological First Aid’ training session she conducts. She trains aid workers and volunteers to help exhausted and often traumatised migrants at the Apanamo transit site and in other locations across Lesvos, Greece after their dangerous sea crossing from Turkey.

Tools needed to offer appropriate support

The one-day sessions aim to give participants some basic insight into what families and individuals go through during their harrowing journeys and equip them with the simple tools needed to offer appropriate support.

“I present the participants with a scenario,” Despina says. “For example, I may tell them: you are a migrant and have brought with you one precious possession that reminds you of the life you have left behind. It is something you treasure, but, during the sea voyage it falls into the water and is lost. What would you do, and how would you feel if you were in that situation?“

Despina’s examples happen time and again to families crammed into flimsy rubber dinghies or leaky wooden boats during their perilous journeys. But during the role play participants often realize – perhaps for the first time – what it means to be severed from the tangible reminders of their own identity.

“The boat exercise was helpful,” wrote one course participant in his evaluation. “It helped me to put myself in the refugees’ shoes.”

“It taught me how important it is to listen,” wrote another.

Listening and non-verbal communication

Listening is indeed vital in order to better appreciate the different cultures and lifestyles of the migrants. When there is no common language, non-verbal communication and body language are important tools. These are also part of the Psychological First Aid training, as well as stress management techniques and sessions to help identify particularly vulnerable individuals or families.

The Psychological First Aid course is just one part of Despina’s programme in Apanemo, which is financed by the Danish Red Cross. She also provides on-the-job training for Hellenic Red Cross staff. Equipped with the appropriate skills, social workers and nurses on secondment from the mainland can help to constantly upgrade relevant competencies amongst local volunteers.

The interaction between migrants and those who offer them support can be both heart wrenching and humbling at times.

“I remember a young Palestinian boy coming from Syria I met in Apanemo,” recalls Despina who is herself Palestinian. “I asked him what the most meaningful thing he had brought with him to Europe was. He put his hand into his pocket and showed me his house key. ‘I am looking after this for my family’, he said. To him the key represented his own young life – he was perhaps 12 years old – but to me it meant much more.

“Two generations ago, during the 1948 Palestinian exodus, every family took with them their front door key. It was both the symbol of all they had lost, and their hope for an eventual return. And they are still doing the same.”

Such encounters leave deep impressions and sear the heart. Properly understood, the psychological support helpers give each other helps them remain strong.

Useful for helping the helpers

“Most aid workers and volunteers will one day go home,“ Despina says. “It is then that what they have lived through can become overwhelming. Although friends and family may be interested, it is hard for anyone who has not actually been there to understand the raw emotions that such an experience may leave behind. This is when the stress management techniques can help us to take care of ourselves.”

This article was originally published on the IFRC website:

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