The ‘dream forest’ of Lublin

Dr Lorraine Haye with reflections on working at an evacuation centre for Ukrainian refugees.

On 3 March 2022 I received a telephone call asking me to deploy to Poland to be a mental health manager at an evacuation centre for Ukrainian Refugees. If the answer was yes, I would need to fly out that night or tomorrow. Over 24 hours later I arrived in Lublin, Poland to begin my deployment with Kenyon International, an international emergency service organisation. 

I had been a team member with Kenyon for more than three years, after meeting the humanitarian services manager at a training event for crisis interventions. Like many people I had watched the news in horror as the war in Ukraine was unfolding, and so I jumped at an opportunity to do anything that could potentially help. However, I had reservations over what I could meaningfully do with the single week that I had managed to negotiate off work at short notice. 

Life in Lublin

My Kenyon colleagues and I noted that loved ones at home likely envisioned us staying in a bunker and trudging through snow and rain at the border. This was far from the reality. The two evacuation centres we worked in were set up in conference rooms in two 4* hotels. We were also staying in another 4* hotel where over breakfast we engaged in polite social chat with people on holiday and people from various humanitarian organisations. We were well looked after, with generous Polish hospitality taking care of our needs and part of a supportive team. With these comforts came a real sense of guilt that we all verbalised… the feeling that somehow we should be suffering because of the horrors of the war happening a few hours away from us. The jarring juxtaposition between life carrying on around us in Lublin versus lives left behind, on hold and lives lost for many Ukrainians.

The support from the local community in Poland was palpable. Ukrainian flags were visible in many public locations. A lone trumpeter played a tribute to Ukraine and then tied together the Ukrainian and Polish flag. Ukrainians were entitled to free public transport across Poland. More widely the sympathetic shift in the global narrative on refugees was noticeable with some Ukrainians describing how it felt heartening to see the world opening their doors to them. I too was touched by the shift in narrative, but also felt a deep sadness and anger that the world does not consistently show the same level of humanity to all refugees.  

The work and challenges

My tasks included some general work such as sorting through the heaps of donations, supporting with the organisation and set-up of activities, signposting to local services, responding to any queries and providing information at briefings. Tasks that were more specific to my role as mental health manager included creating psychosocial resources, psychological first aid and emotional support to any of the displaced Ukrainian’s and colleagues. Google Translate became a necessary tool when talking to some colleagues from various countries. 

I had been briefed that I had to be mindful of language as mental health has some stigmatic connotations in Ukraine – hence why we were called the wellbeing team. Much time was spent deliberating on language, the appropriateness of interventions, and seeking consultation from others who had knowledge of Ukrainian cultural norms. It was clear that some of the refugees who had been there longer were restless and needed something to do, particularly some of the men. We discussed different tasks that might help provide a sense of purpose and liaised with the local Red Cross centre helped identify various volunteer opportunities to signpost people to. 

There had been reports of some tensions breaking out amongst people and so there was a push for us to set up and run groups to get people together to share their experiences. We reflected that it was not safe to encourage them to connect to feeling – most people were likely still in survival mode or shock, and facing so much uncertainty. My colleague who had been there from the beginning shared with me the themes that had emerged from her 1.1 discussions with some of the Ukrainians. This helped guide the focus of the groups we developed. 

One of the main groups we ran was a ‘creativity and community group’ for adults and a separate session for children. This was a Tree of Life-based group – a narrative therapy methodology created by Ncazelo Ncube and David Denborough (2006). This approach enables people to speak about their lives in ways that make them stronger. It involves people drawing their tree in which they get to speak of their ‘roots’ (where they come from), their current context (the ground). Their skills, strengths and knowledge (the trunk), their hopes and dreams (branches), the special people in their lives (leaves) and the gifts they had been given (fruits). All the adults spoke English well and for the children’s group we had the instructions translated and I facilitated alongside a translator. During the drawing of the trees calming music was played and participants were offered the choice of whether they wanted to engage in the task as purely a creative exercise, or to use the tree to tell their story as instructed. All groups were single session and everyone chose to share their story.

I felt privileged to bear witness to all the stories I heard and they will stay with me forever. However, those stories do not belong to me and so it is not my place to share them. We had consent from all the participants to put their trees on the wall to create a ‘forest of life’. We discussed how the forest reflected the community that was in the centre and how each tree was an individual story that was part of the shared experience in this community. Some participants put comments on post it notes and stuck them on each other’s trees to offer words of advice or support about what people had shared in the group. Feedback from some group members was that it had been useful to hear other people’s experiences.

During the children’s group, I felt helpless that I could not follow all the conversations that were happening as it was not possible to translate everything. Some of the children were proud of their trees and brought their family members to view them after the group ended. I invited the children to give the forest a name and in doing so naming the community. They called it the ‘dream forest’. The trees stayed on the wall as an ongoing reminder of the community that was growing there. As new people arrived they would be able to witness the stories, hopes and dreams of the people who had been there longer or possibly moved on. Other Ukrainians who came to view the trees wanted to be part of the forest and so were offered the possibility to do so in a repeated group session the following week or a 1.1 session. The room subsequently became known as ‘the forest room’ and I as ‘the tree lady’ and ‘tree hugger’. 

We ran at least one psychosocial group each day and these were generally less structured than the creativity and community group and more informal drop-in sessions. All groups were very practical, focused on the present and based on what we had picked up as the present needs of the Ukrainians we were supporting. Many social activities were also organised by the team including pottery class, music night, yoga etc to encourage engagement in the local community. Day care had been set up for the children from the beginning and they were taken out for most of the day to play and engage in structured activities. International Women’s day occurred on the 8th March and is a national holiday in Ukraine. It is customary for men to give women a flower as it represents the start of Spring. It had been organised for male staff to give all women a single tulip. Later in the day some of the male refugees give all women a bouquet of tulips, and so the centre was brightened with the presence of flowers.  

Returning home

Intellectually I was aware of common responses after returning from deployment: pre-pandemic, my plan had been to work for a humanitarian organisation. I naively assumed because I had only been gone for a week and had been well supported on deployment that I would be able to settle back into my routine with ease. Yet in the days after returning home I felt a consistent sense of restlessness that was hard to shake and impacted me in various ways. For the short time I was in Poland, Ukraine was my central focus so I had been full of adrenaline. We lived and breathed the news and updates from the community to keep abreast of the war. Everything we planned was done with the understanding it could be dropped at a second’s notice and new plans needed to respond to developing situations. Everything else in my life became background noise for that week. Therefore it was hard to return home and adjust to the experience that the war was background noise for most people; it had to be in order for people to function day to day. 

Within the first few days home I had a welfare call from a psychologist from Kenyon, as is standard when people return from deployment. Upon hearing I was a psychologist he suggested that I might not find much benefit from the call as I likely knew all the advice he could offer. However, as a clinical psychologist I feel we often have to be everything to everyone: we support people directly impacted by an experience, their families, our colleagues, organisations etc, then there’s usually little support left for us. So I felt extremely grateful for that phone call from someone who understood the experience. It allowed me to give myself the permission I did not know I needed to talk to other people in my life about what I had been doing. For some reason I felt I needed to keep it all to myself, but talking about it made it feel less surreal. After all, I had gone from sitting at work catching up on admin to 24 hours later arriving in a foreign country with no idea what I was walking into or what I would be doing. 

Nevertheless, the hardest thing about the experience was letting go. Despite the awful circumstances that warranted me being there, I loved the work I was doing and wanted to stay to see the work through until the end. However I had commitments I had to return back to, a life waiting for me. The work I did is a drop in the ocean in the broader context of support that will be needed for Ukrainians to rebuild their lives. Nonetheless, it solidified my belief that to be of service to people as clinical psychologists we have to be flexible, move out of our clinical environments and meet people where they are in both a literal and metaphorical sense. 

Reference

Ncube, N. (2006). The Tree of Life Project: Using narrative ideas in work with vulnerable children in South Africa. International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, 1, 3–16.

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