Psychology in practice - Welfare of refugees

Sue Cavill talks to those in the front line and finds that the Western model of help may not be the most suitable.
Graham Fawcett shows me a child’s picture. Drawn mainly in yellow, it is punctuated by red — red tanks, red guns, a red body, red blood among falling houses. It was drawn by a Kosovar refugee in the summer of 1999. Looking at the picture, one begins to imagine the experiences that the child went through. We immediately think of trauma, then magnify it thousands of times to conjure up a traumatised nation. The impulse is to help, and last summer dozens of Western mental health professionals arrived in Albania to help the Kosovar refugees deal with their trauma. One of these was Graham Fawcett, Training Director and Chair of the Public Policy Group for Youth With A Mission (YWAM), a worldwide Christian interdenominational organisation. According to Graham, who went out to the stricken area twice, the model of help that many Western professionals might want to use is not necessarily the best one. ‘Current understanding on how to help areas in long-term distress is not bringing foreigners in, but identifying ways to help the population deal with the distress in their own ways,’ he explained. ‘This is a controversial view because of people’s “rescue mentality” in the West.’ In Waltham Forest, northeast London, Kate Harris has been working as a refugee support psychologist for Forest Healthcare NHS Trust since June 1997. Although recruited as a refugee counsellor, she says: ‘…much of the first-line support is done by community groups. My work involves empowering community groups, befriending.’ As she has worked with the refugees, Kate has found that traditions within their culture, which are different from our society’s coping mechanisms, are in fact highly effective in helping them cope with the day-to-day issues in their lives. Both Graham and Kate, working in very different arenas, have come to similar conclusions — that helping refugees does not necessarily mean imposing a Western mindset on their problems. Rather, it often involves a dialogue to discover how the refugees’ own culture and mores can help bring healing to traumatic memories.

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