No matter how difficult it is, humanity and good in us comes to the surface

Dragana Cuk

Dragana Cuk, psychologist in NGO ATINA discusses psychological condition of refugees on the road and challenges for mobile team activists.

It is very hard for the people to understand the situation of the people on the journey, who had to flee from their countries. Therefore, the question is what is the starting point and the view of the people who represent Atina in the field? Which basic information do they posses about the condition of the people who are fleeing the war?   

All employees and Atina’s employees, who are working in the field and have undergone training prior to starting their work in the field, in order to be prepared to face those circumstances. It is very difficult to be completely prepared, especially psychologically prepared; despite the skills they possess, for the conditions in the fields, but can to a certain extent help others and protect themselves. Both are important.   

It is extremely important to understand the specific situations in which the people are and the trauma they are experiencing. Sometimes I hear that stress is mentioned, stressful situation as a description of the condition. In my opinion what they are experiencing exceeds stress, it is trauma from the war. When thinking about these people, we think about their journey from the moment they began the journey and everything they experience on the way. I think it is very important what they have experienced before. Therefore, they did not begin their journey as happy people, healthy mentally and physically, adults, with money and so on. People who decide to begin their journey have already been exposed to prolonged stress and trauma in the places where they lived. That is the state prior to their departure, in terms of mental powers that the people have. Is an act of courage to begin the journey, knowing what awaits them, especially parents with children. Now I am talking about psychological issues, in the sense of the requirements of the role - to be the one who is strong, who carries everything, who is always calm, what every culture has and especially the one they come from. It is not easy in these stressful and traumatic circumstances, to be calm and make the right decision, whatever that may be, to be supportive to others, not to show that it is difficult for you and to coop with all this. So, for sure, they have their ordeal as well.
On the other hand, what is specific for Atina, it is the focus on women and children. An additional burden, primarily emotional, which the women and children have - women suffering different violence that preceded their departure, and in the situation of transiting through different countries, they are very vulnerable and exposed to sexual violence, especially young women. Sometimes we hear beautiful human stories, where people based on culture bond with complete strangers, who are from the same part of the country. In these situations, no matter how difficult it is, humanity and good in us comes to the surface.

Traumatic things that the refugees carry with themselves when they started the journey, in terms of fear for their lives, for the lives of children, physical difficulties to move, because a large part of the journey is on foot, walking on foot in situations where the shoes are outworn, when walking is not only physically exhausting but it is also physically threatening for the feet. And in addition, care of the children who need to be carried when they are not able to walk any more. Listening to stories, living with the fact that if they are left behind, women and children are more likely to do this, because the group is trying to survive, to continue the journey and does not have the time to wait for the others because the group needs to survive, continue the journey and does not have the time to wait for those who are behind. So the fear related to how it will be for me, how will I survive, to situations which were described - the children who are drowning, and parents who are watching this in those boats which are not conditional for sea travel.

We heard different traumatic stories, and I think that is the first and foremost thing for anyone who works in the field, to understand the people who are in need. Identifying trauma and ways of expressing it, which can be expressed in ways that challenge our prejudices, that part is to me very important. Conditionally, it is easier to deal with symptoms of a trauma which clearly connects to suffering of another human being, that is where we sympathize and there is less danger that we could do something wrong which could additionally victimize the victim. It is especially important to highlight those behaviors that are manifestations of trauma, which may be exposed to labeling. For instance, one of the symptoms of trauma in the parents' role is overprotecting the child, not releasing the child from us, which could be attached to various prejudices, especially if there are cultural prejudices against people from the Arab culture and therefore, opens space for secondary victimization. Such specific situations are very important. Children who extensively cry, shout, can not calm down, do not listen in the sense of not hearing requirements, do not obey the requirements, are very prone to labeling – that they are rude, spoiled and so on, negative reactions, which could be a manifestation of trauma. Lack of confidence toward people is often one of the signs manifesting trauma, especially with regard to various scams experienced on the way from people who are smuggling and may again encounter a negative response from professionals, which they are meeting. This is one of the specifics that we need to be aware of and which can cause a negative response.

A very important part of working with our people in the field was the topic of prejudice, to awake their own prejudices and interpretation of prejudices. It would be idealistic to expect to educate a person without prejudice, but what is important to know how to recognize it. It is only human that prejudice may occur in the field. But if a person recognizes it and stops this behavior, interprets prejudice and does not act from prejudice, then this is something completely different and opens space for establishing good contact.

Cultural specifics are very important for us, part of the training relates to communication skills, which are very culturally sensitive, changeable, taking in consideration the culture. It was important that together with my colleagues from other countries, from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries from which the refugees came from, we can verify, especially cases of non-verbal communication, what is allowed and what is not, with respect to gender, age, etc. So that they obtain this specific knowledge as well.

Another kind of skills, which is also very important, is how to protect them, how can they cope with stress, because it certainly causes stress in them as well. How traumatized are the people they come in contact with or even have symptoms of post -traumatic stress disorder, and on the other hand persons in role of aid workers, that have worked for a long time, and therefore have been secondary exposed to traumatic events, also eventually get the symptoms of their emotional and mental suffering, which is very similar to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. In the sense parts of traumatic stories occur that they have heard through the confessions of people, which come back over and over again and result in in sleep or appetite disorders. An important part is how they can protect themselves from this and in that context is the idea they regularly meet with me and the others and thus to help them to sustain themselves, in order to last longer, be helpful to others and be satisfied with themselves and their lives.

Women refugees speak of additional fear, which they experience because they are women, about concern regarding their safety, safety of their family and especially fear if they have daughters, girls, which means an additional layer of fear because they are women. What is the Atina’s answer to this situation?

A very important aspect of Atina’s work is recognizing exploitation, the risk of exploitation, prevention if it is just a risk, in other words reaction if there is suspicion of continuous violence. So, it is a very important part of the work that we are developing – from the procedure and cooperation with the institutions of the system. If it is a response to violence, then it is not possible without cooperation with Centers for Social Work and Social Welfare Services, especially if it concerns unaccompanied minors. Unaccompanied minors are one of Atina’s focuses. Specific indicators have been developed for identification of children or young persons at risk, what are the behaviors that may indicate that they are at risk, especially if it an adult appears, which seems to be accompanying the child or young person, but we are not sure, how can we assess what is going on. It unlikely to expect that a victim or at risk of becoming a victim will openly speak about it due to fear. This is the feeling of helplessness in relation with the aggressor that prevents social contact and seeking help from outside. Therefore, it was important that our people in the field could recognize this based on indicators, and to conduct a special approach. On the one hand to activate other institutions and other systems, if their reaction is important, but also to reach out to the young person in order to break the fear of the threats, and in order to calm the person. To establish a relationship of trust but not at all costs to speak about what is happening, to provide safe ground to the person who is afraid and at risk.

When people arrive at the desired destination, only then will actually the integration begin. And is that awaits Atina and our society?

One of the things that we though about and that we have dealt with in previous years, with the refugees who were living in the collective centers, in terms of making them familiar with the environments in countries of their final destination, we talked with them about how we see different cultures. How we see each other, where is the space for prejudice and rejection and where are the different value systems that will require a certain degree of adjustment. Or some prejudices which they will face, so we worked with the refugees in refugee centers on the level that they are able to recognize prejudice and to have psychological barriers in the sense that prejudices talk about people themselves and say nothing about them, as a first step of psychological protection that they can implement by themselves. Awareness about what they are most likely to face and the first basic level of psychological defense, as well as the awareness that they will need to adjust to a different value system. Now in this situation of emergency aid in the field, there is less space for the prevention, in terms of getting on in the countries of destination, and that is something that will eventually come. In Germany there are protests so it is unknown what could be expected in the future.