Who can be great mental health counsellors for refugees? Refugees

A project in Germany allows refugees who know the mother tongue of asylum seekers and have experienced their situation first-hand, to offer much-needed psychological support

Refugees in Germany are being trained as mental health counsellors to offer psychological support – from a listening ear to sharing coping skills – to asylum seekers with similar backgrounds.

A pilot project was launched by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) at St. Josef hospital in the city of Schweinfurt, Bavaria, in March 2017 after the charity noticed a stark lack of mental health support for asylum seekers.

“Our impression was that the asylum seekers had huge mental health needs that no one cares about,” said project coordinator and clinical psychologist Henrike Zellmann. “That is why we wanted to start a pilot project like this.”

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Asylum seekers arriving in Schweinfurt, many of whom have experienced severe trauma, are offered counselling in their own language by trained lay counsellors who are also refugees. The counsellors are permanently employed at the hospital where their supervision and training is overseen by Zellmann, who also steps in when her professional help is needed. She hopes the project will be replicated in Germany and further afield too.

The talks with the counsellors here do me good. It helps when someone listens to me

Abdifatah is among the counsellors. Before coming to Germany, he worked as a journalist in Mogadishu and now helps Somalis who have fled the civil war in his native country.

“Once, a woman whose daughter had died came to see me,” he said. “She had lost everything. I felt that she was very alone. When she sat with me in the consulting room, she suddenly stopped and said ‘this is the first time in weeks that someone has offered me a tea’.”

Salah, another lay counsellor, believes that understanding people’s experiences first-hand is crucial. “They say ‘when I tell my story to a German, he does not understand. But when I tell it to you, you can understand what I’ve been through’.”

Bahodur (right; name changed) from Afghanistan, during a counselling session with Parisa Zare Moayedi

Yassin is from Aleppo, Syria, and lives with his wife and nine children in an asylum centre in Schweinfurt. His father and brother were killed by a barrel bomb – an improvised unguided bomb. His family’s journey to Europe turned his hair white. “The talks with the counsellors here do me good,” he said. “I am always looking for them. It helps when someone listens to me.”

Hamdi, (not his real name), fled the civil war in Yemen, crossing the Sahara and Mediterranean Sea en route to Germany. He lives in fear of deportation but is eager to help others, translating from Somali to Arabic for newly arrived asylum seekers. “I am busy and helpful. And I forget my situation a bit.”

Images: MSF



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