International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Helping Syrian refugees heal: psychologists making a difference

Neda and Nawal say they can see a difference almost immediately. “We talk,” says Neda. “Often in the first 15 minutes I can see a change in their outlook. It’s not easy, because they have so many stressful memories, but we discuss happy moments.”

The two are psychologists who work with the International Rescue Committee in northern Jordan, trying to make refugee women more comfortable in who they are after what they’ve been through. It’s often emotionally painful work, but Neda and Nawal say that they can identify with the Syrian women. Both of them grew up as Palestinian refugees.

Whether having a loved one killed, witnessing or experiencing sexual violence, or the act of leading their family out of harm’s way; all exact a painful emotional toll. And it doesn’t end when they arrive as refugees in a host country like Jordan, Lebanon or Iraq.  There, they encounter an entirely new array of challenges. How to pay for housing, food, healthcare? Does the host country allow family members to work or attend school? How does one register for humanitarian aid, if indeed there is any? How does one even learn about what support is available if you — like most refugees — live outside of a camp, hidden away in a crammed apartment?

The IRC and other humanitarian agencies working with refugees have a variety of names for places where refugees can gather, share and learn. They are “Safe Spaces,” “Listening Centers,” or “Women and Girls Community Centers.” What they all share is the provision of a private space where anonymity and personal safety are paramount.

Neda Radwan is on the left and Nawal Mohammad

IRC psychologists Neda Radwan (left) and Nawal Mohammad help Syrian refugees recover from traumatic experiences in Syria and to adapt to the difficult life of a refugee.  

Photo: Ned Colt/IRC

One of the untaught lessons is the realization that whatever they’ve experienced, they’re not alone. “Sharing experiences is therapeutic,” says Nawal. “They learn coping mechanisms from one another.” Neda and Nawal say their role is not to probe or expose emotional wounds. It’s more about listening, and guiding conversation if needed. Cognitive therapy comes to mind. “We debrief them about their experiences, and discuss how to be grounded,” says Neda. “We visualize good moments and places.  We work on positive reinforcement rather than negative.”  

Nawal shares a file of colored pencil drawings made by members of one of her women’s groups in their early meetings. The colors red and black predominate; attack aircraft, tanks and Kalashnikovs represent fear, anxiety and death.  In later artwork illustrating those good moments and places, houses and family are the recurring themes. The sun is a bold and warming yellow, and here and there a rainbow protectively arcs over a home.

Both Neda and Nawal provide group and individual sessions, and have worked with close to 200 women to date. “There’s an amazing level of commitment on the part of the those I meet with," Nawal says. They have little money for transportation to get here, but they still come every week. And we have a waiting list.”

In May, the IRC began providing sessions for men and children. Those groups are also filled to capacity.

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