Physical and psychological toll on refugees is huge

Red Cross say most important thing for Irish hosts to do is to be aware of trauma

With more than three million people fleeing Ukraine since the Russian invasion on February 24th, 2022 and another six million people internally displaced since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the physical and psychological toll on individuals having to leave their homes so suddenly is huge.

The UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has described the scale and speed of movement of people from Ukraine in recent weeks as the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since the second World War.

"I have worked in refugee emergencies for almost 40 years and rarely have I seen an exodus as rapid as this one," said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. "Hour by hour, minute by minute, more people are fleeing the terrible reality of violence."

Offering advice to people in Ireland hosting those who arrive from Ukraine, Liam O'Dwyer, the secretary general of the Irish Red Cross, said that the most important thing host families can do is to be aware of the trauma that those arriving here have gone through. "Some people will need to talk and others won't want to talk, but being there to listen and giving people the space to recover is most important."


Speaking at an international seminar on the enduring impacts of displacement at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), Tala al Rousan, Jordanian researcher of refugee health, said one in 10 resettled refugees suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Al Rousan, who is a San Diego-based research fellow with the Global Brain Health Institute at TCD said she has never yet met a single refugee who doesn’t want to go back home. “Emotional stress, fear of the unknown, the physical journey and (current) health problems of those who are travelling” are elements of the trauma faced by people forced to flee their country, she explained. And when they arrive at their destination, many face language and cultural barriers as well as difficulties navigating health services.

At the same seminar, Zarlasht Halaimzai, London-based founder of Amna, the Refugee Healing Network [formerly the Refugee Trauma Initiative] described how pop-up creative spaces at waiting points when refugees are on the move can provide comfort and temporary relief of trauma.

‘Heal as a community’

The charity which Halaimzai founded in 2016 to help Syrians on the Syrian/Turkish border, later worked with refugees in Albania, Kosovo and Italy. And now Halaimzai and her team are now starting work in Poland and Moldova with Ukrainians. "We create spaces where people can heal as a community. Suffering is expressed and acknowledged and there is an opportunity to take care of people as they are going through a crisis," explained Halaimzai.

In these temporary spaces, children are given opportunities to draw and paint while adults and children can partake in drama and dance activities, perform plays, make films and photographic exhibitions.

“These are grounding experiences to help people feel a sense of joy and belonging,” said Halaimzai. “But [when they are partaking in the activities], they talk about how they feel dislocated and alone in these crowded places. They talk about the pains in their bodies, their nightmares, their sense of grief, sadness and anger and how they feel unsafe.”

Halaimzai, who was a displaced teenager in London when her family fled Afghanistan, has a strong sense of empathy when she discusses the work. "People's needs don't stop at food and shelter. The need to feel safe is a fundamental human right. With this work, we recognise and acknowledge trauma without pathologising it. By helping people feel worthy and seen, we can dislodge the trauma and (try to) prevent long term health and relational impacts."

Rachel Hoare, expressive arts therapist and lecturer at TCD, also spoke at the seminar about her work with unaccompanied minors who have arrived in Ireland. She explained how when people experienced severe trauma, the brain can make it impossible to talk about it. "It's a human survival response that language can become inaccessible to those who have experienced trauma but it (the trauma) is accessible through creative arts like dance and music and through play for children," said Hoare. She showed the audience how one young person documented his journey from his home country to Ireland with images. "He was unable to talk about it but he could illustrate it in this way," she explains.

Speaking about their plans to set up crisis-management stations on the Ukrainian border, Halaimzai adds. “It’s also about bearing witness and acknowledging these people’s experience of violence.”

Durkhanai Ayubi, a displaced Afghan who runs an Afghan restaurant in Adelaide, Australia also spoke about how important it is to recognise displacement as a shared experience. "We remake ourselves out of necessity. Creativity is key to our healing. Displacement is not something that has hollowed me out. It has added to my experience. What we need to do now is to understand ourselves unmasked, shed superficiality and (realise) that we are all reflections of each other."