Working Therapeutically with Syrian Refugees

Working Therapeutically with Syrian Refugees

As part of Refugee Week,  I thought I would  share my experiences of working therapeutically with the Syrian Refugees on the Resettlement programme. This programme is based here in Sheffield with the Refugee Council.

When working as a humanitarian worker, I enjoyed working with different communities.  I worked with displaced people and refugees who had fled their homeland or country due to conflict.  I was installing emergency water and sanitation systems. During this work, I spent a lot of time listening to the communities, (especially women), as well as providing emotional support.  It was therefore exciting that this experience led me to have the opportunity to work therapeutically with the Syrian Refugees. It also fulfilled my silent ambition to be working again with refugees. 

With over 25 year’s experience as an aid worker and counsellor, I felt that my skills would be beneficial and I felt confident with the new challenge. I have to admit I did feel slightly wobbly working with interpreters in a therapy setting but a through induction and the book working with interpreters helped relieve the fear.

Working with Interpreters

Working with interpreters has been testing but a rewarding experience. Introducing a third person into the room goes against the all my counselling instincts. Normally I would never have a third person in the room! Questions like ‘will it work?’ and ‘will I be judged?’ popped into my mind.

The nerves during my first session of both me, the interpreter and the client was present in the room. Sharing the immediacy of how it felt for all us put us all at ease. I pleased to say that I am now in a position when I rarely notice the interpreter. I am there with the client and we work with the sound of interpreting in our ears. Clients and I have forged a deep relationship of trust, respect and honesty.

It has been a joy working with interpreters. All my interpreters are from Libya. In between clients we chat and they’ve shared their culture and experiences with me. New working friendships have been formed. It is sometimes moving and hard seeing how the client’s story affect the interpreters. They feel powerless when it triggers they own personal traumas. Luckily,  the interpreters have group supervision which allows them to share with each other the challenges they face in the counselling room.

The value of sharing

 It’s not surprisingly, I have been shocked by client stories and experiences. Thier traumatic experiences that I have heard in the last nine months have had a deep impact on me. Supervision has played a huge part in helping me process what I hear. Sharing the burden is essential. Supervision also ensures I maintain a good therapeutic relationship without becoming too involved in the clients experiences.

My other support is Jude, the senior therapist. Her experience and openness has been invaluable. Working as part of a team is new to me after being in counselling private practice for over 15 years. I relish being with my team and having the instant support and understanding.

Counselling boundaries

Working with the Refugees sometimes means I step out the counsellor role. If a client is distressed as they cannot read or understand a bill that has come in the post that day. Spending an extra 5 minutes at the end of the session making a phone call on their behalf seems appropriate.

Liaising with the project workers is essential. It really is team work. 

Ensuring clients understand the professional relationship is paramount to ensure that professional boundaries are always maintained. Remembering this is essential to ensure my clients see me as a professional rather than their friend.

Coming to counselling is a new concept to the Syrians. Despite this, their readiness to engage is huge. In the last months, I have seen how valuable counselling has been to the refugees. To be allowed that time and space to talk about their issues to  someone is who genuinely interested and listens wholeheartedly has been important. Feeling valued and having that deep personal connection is important for them (and for me too!).

 Our sessions

Re-settling here in the UK can be an isolating and frustrating experience for refugees. They are faced with many barriers. Language is often the biggest one, especially to the older refugees who struggle to have the memory to remember English. Community and family support is important to the Syrians. Therefore re-settling without your grown-up children or parents brings heartache and tears. Loss and grief is present in the room during most sessions. Being restricted to 12 sessions with each client means that we may only touch on the surface of their trauma.

Refugees can face discrimination and racism here in the UK. Punch a muslim day brought fear and humiliation to our Syrian clients. Our counselling sessions held them throughout that time.

Grounding work and helping the refugees think how they can manage on a day to day basis helps them keep their life together. The trauma some of them have faced leave them depressed and struggle to integrate here in the UK and some even struggle to leave their home. Coming to counselling helps them confront their depression. Knowing someone cares impacts them positively. 

Holistic approach

Acknowledging and understanding their past and present experiences is essential  A holistic approach is necessary. Recognising and understanding on-going problems with their health, housing and family becomes part of the assessment. I’ve had to widen my knowledge through reading. This has given me a better understanding of the social, economic, legal and political context impacting the Refugees and their families. The support workers and their expertise has also been invaluable to widening my own knowledge.

And finally……

It is a wonderful opportunity and privilege to work with the Refugee Council and the Syrians. The Sheffield team are dedicated team and work tirelessly to support the Syrians in resettling. It feels helpful that our small team of  counsellors can support their work by providing therapy to the Refugees. I have been struck by the refugees resilience and the survival strategies they take on board. 

I would value connecting with other counsellors or psychotherapists who work with Refugees.

If you do, feel free to contact me or comment in the box below.



2 thoughts on “Working Therapeutically with Syrian Refugees”

  1. Hello Hazel, my name is Lynne Booker and I’ve just been appointed to the same role in Peterborough.Thank you for your lovely positive article- and I hope we will meet up sometime! All the very best with your work!

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