‘It’s not a crisis or problem we can sweep under the rug’

Ella Rhodes meets those trying to help refugees.

14 September 2017

While around 1 per cent of the world’s entire population is currently displaced, including 22.5 million refugees, our awareness, and care for, their plight seems to fluctuate with the news agenda. History may look back on this period and wonder how it could have been ignored. Our journalist Ella Rhodes spoke to a psychosocial worker working at the heart of the crisis in Greece and to psychologists who are trying to unravel why our empathy only stretches so far.

Zarlasht Halaimzai is Executive Director of the Refugee Trauma Initiative (RTI), the only organisation focused on providing psychosocial support to refugees in Greece; she told us about her work. Since March 2016 the NGO has managed to provide psychosocial support to more than 2000 vulnerable people and is now hoping to raise funds to hire new therapists to continue its work.

‘Losing your home and your community and your friends has an impact on everything. The refugees we work with have no idea where they’ll end up, they’ve experienced many potentially traumatic experiences, they have no access to a job market so there’s a loss of identity associated with that. You lose your routines, your structures. One of the things that comes up again and again in our groups is what are we coping for? Where’s this going? Where’s the end? Refugees in Greece have been through a huge ordeal to get there. People think when they reach the country things will improve, but they don’t.’

Halaimzai, who set up the NGO with colleagues after travelling to Greece to help refugees arriving on Lesbos, was herself a refugee as a child after her family was forced to flee Afghanistan and the horrors of civil war when she was 11. She and her family spent the next four years travelling without a secure or permanent home through Central Asia and Europe – always with the hope they could return to Afghanistan and continue their lives; but after the Taliban took over the country it became impossible to return.

Halaimzai and her family finally settled in London as refugees when she was 15. Despite speaking little English and having never been to school, Halaimzai found herself in a tough London comprehensive, starting her life all over again. ‘That definitely shaped who I am and my motivations and what I wanted to do with my life. My whole career has been about bridging the gap between people who have things and people who don’t. Right now that is about helping refugees.’

Indeed, Halaimzai’s career has involved extraordinary work; travelling to Jordan to help refugees, working with Save the Children helping to support educational programmes in Syrian cities Aleppo and Idleb while children’s homes were being bombed. She is now training as a child psychotherapist, and she and colleagues turned their attention to giving psychological support to refugees. Halaimzai said that in all the areas she has worked psychological support for refugees is lacking: ‘It’s an area that remains under-served because it’s difficult work. You need specialists, you need to invest, but it’s completely indispensable for communities to recover and survive these conflicts.’

Currently around 60,000 people in Greece are awaiting the results of their asylum applications, most of those refugees have been through many camps and continue to be moved around, causing further uncertainty. Some of the refugees have been given temporary housing, but after six months they will be expected to find their own accommodation. To make matters worse, most of the larger NGOs, including Médecins Sans Frontières, International Rescue Committee and Save the Children, are downscaling their operations in Greece or leaving altogether as many reach the end of emergency funding.

But psychological support, Halaimzai added, is as important as food, shelter and water for people living through unimaginable crises. ‘We definitely hope to play a significant role in the humanitarian sector when it comes to psychosocial support and refugee wellbeing. The more we work in this area the more obvious the need for this type of service. Our data so far is mainly qualitative, but people really benefit from this kind of support.’

The RTI helps to set up safe spaces in the refugee camps in Greece where men, women and children can talk with a trained psychologist or therapist about anything they like. They use a group approach, art and music activities, and help empower people to find solutions to their own problems. The RTI therapists also work as advocates for the refugees when they hear about provisions in camps or shelters that may be lacking, or as mediators between the refugee communities, service providers and the Greek government.

‘We don’t really provide therapy, it’s not safe enough to do so when people are in transition. Through the group method, using art, music and other activities, we hope to have a therapeutic impact on the people we work with. One of the things we’re keen to keep as part of our model is to have qualified people present in the group even when we aren’t providing therapy.’

The RTI has set up a Go Fund Me page to raise £50,000 to help hire two more therapists, with a specialism in child development and trauma, to be based in Northern Greece. Fathers are a particularly overlooked group in such work, so Halaimzai is hoping to hire one male practitioner to help fathers of refugee families cope from day to day. RTI is also always seeking experienced volunteers who can commit to at least four weeks in Greece to work with refugees and provide training for volunteers and aid workers.

‘No one decides to live in a refugee camp. This is going to grow, it’s not a crisis or problem we can sweep under the rug. It’s not a question of whether it’s good or bad to address it, it won’t go away. Migration, displacement and refugees will increase with more conflict, inequality and climate change. We’ll have more and more movement of people, and if policymakers don’t take that into account and genuinely address it as a problem I don’t see how anything will change.’

Many psychologists are working towards a solution to just this problem: How can we make such enormous issues trigger empathy in individuals and policymakers? More than two years after the horrifying photograph of three-year-old refugee Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach brought about a wave of compassion and charity donations, the refugee crisis is now rarely featured in the main news agenda – at least in the Western world.  

In an interview in Vox Brian Resnick spoke to psychologist Paul Slovic (University of Oregon), whose work has asked why the world ignores mass atrocities and mass suffering. While humans are excellent at sympathising with the plight of individuals, as the number of affected people rises we grow increasingly detached. This phenomenon, named psychic numbing by Slovic, even applies when the number of victims rises from one to two.

Slovic has done research on the public response to the photograph of Alan Kurdi, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He told Resnick: ‘Since 2011, the...death toll in Syria was relentlessly climbing to hundreds of thousands. Suddenly we see this little boy washed up on the beach, and it woke people up. People suddenly started to care about the Syrian war and the refugees, in ways that the statistics of hundreds of thousands of deaths had not led them to pay attention to. Then we were able to track that, and that lasted roughly a month.’

Many feel unable to help in the face of such large numbers of affected people, a phenomenon known as false inefficiency. But Slovic said: ‘Even partial solutions can save whole lives. Sure, it doesn’t feel as good. Don’t be misled by the fact that you can’t do it all. In one of our experiments, we showed that people were less likely to do something that would save 4500 lives in a refugee camp if that camp had 250,000 people than if it had 11,000 people. It didn’t feel as good to save those lives, 4500 out of 250,000. That’s where you say, “Well, wait a minute. Even partial solutions save whole lives”.’

- Find more on refugees in our archive.