|Year : 2023 | Volume
| Issue : 1 | Page : 80-83
Workshops on Trauma and Loss, Coping and Resilience, to Support Afghani Refugee Women Living in Limbo in Greece
Jane Shackman1, Khatera Saeedi2
1 BA, Honours Degree, Social Studies, CQSW (Certificate of Qualification in Social Work), Post-graduate Certificate in Education, United Kingdom
2 Diploma in Education and Teacher Training, Canada
|Date of Submission||20-Mar-2023|
|Date of Acceptance||20-Mar-2023|
|Date of Web Publication||27-Apr-2023|
28, The Butts,
Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None
These joint reflections are from Jane, who designed and delivered the workshops for Afghani refugee women, and Khatera, one of the participants, who supported and helped with communication in advance and throughout. They describe the main elements of the workshops and their impact. The workshops acknowledged the enormous losses and traumas the women had experienced, but also looked at ways of keeping hope alive and the importance of recognising and building on the strengths and resilience the women already had. The workshops were organised by the International Bar Association, UK.
Keywords: coping, loss, resilience
|How to cite this article:|
Shackman J, Saeedi K. Workshops on Trauma and Loss, Coping and Resilience, to Support Afghani Refugee Women Living in Limbo in Greece. Intervention 2023;21:80-3
Jane Shackman is a freelance consultant in trauma, crisis and victim support, working in UK and overseas with refugees and others affected by violence, trauma and bereavement.
Khatera Saeedi is a former journalist, human rights activist and humanitarian worker in Afghanistan, now living in Canada.
| Background|| |
In August 2021, the Taliban took sudden and violent control of Afghanistan, rolling back women’s rights and many freedoms in the country and putting many lives at risk. The International Bar Association (IBA) helped to evacuate 103 women and their immediate families who were at high risk, including judges, prosecutors, defence lawyers, MPs, human rights activists and journalists, who after a period in hiding, were helped to flee quickly and secretly for their own safety; professional, skilled and courageous women, who had been evacuated for their own protection with only their immediate (but not extended) families, leaving behind their homes and neighbourhoods, their country, jobs, status, people they cared about and most of their possessions, into a life of loss and uncertainty as refugees.
Now in Greece, which had generously offered them temporary sanctuary whilst resettlement in third countries could be negotiated, these displaced, exiled women were now in limbo. They were in a country where they did not speak the language and were unfamiliar with the culture, structures and norms of that new society, unable to work, unsure what the future held, and separated from and fearful for the safety and wellbeing of relatives, friends and colleagues still living under threatening and difficult conditions in Afghanistan.
Khatera, a journalist and human rights activist, was one of this group, and she arrived in Greece on 24 October 2021 after “the most difficult and challenging journey of my life.” She, with the other women, had been leading full and successful lives in Afghanistan, looking forward to a bright and hopeful future, when suddenly everything changed: Khatera voiced what many women felt: “I was never, ever expecting and had never, ever imagined, even for one day or for one minute, that all these changes could suddenly happen in my life.” The women left behind everything as the country collapsed, everything that was familiar; it was “the most shocking period of our lives and no words can express our feelings, or how we survived. The situation changed in a way that no one could imagine, no one could expect that could happen.”
In Greece the women continued to live with the trauma of what they had experienced, the difficulties of life in limbo and the uncertainty of what the future held: “We didn’t know what was going to happen here (in Greece), we still didn’t know where we were going to next. What is our final destination? What is our life going to be now and from now on?”
The IBA recognised that the women were finding life very challenging and perhaps had not had the opportunity to talk about or process the impact of what had happened. At the same time, Jane (a psychosocial trauma consultant from the UK) approached the IBA to see if she could offer support in some way, and we developed the idea of offering workshops on trauma and loss, coping and resilience to help the women address some of their harrowing experiences and losses, the challenges of life in limbo and the uncertainty of their futures, whilst also acknowledging and building on their strengths and resilience.
| Preparing for the Workshops|| |
When Jane and Khatera met in Athens on Sunday 8 May 2022 for the first time, with the workshops starting the next day, neither of them had any real idea of what to expect!
Jane − I had spent a few weeks thinking about these workshops, discussing ideas with colleagues, and preparing PowerPoint slides and a range of activities I could use. What should I focus on? The impact of trauma and loss, or do the women already know so much about this that they would prefer to talk about coping and building resilience? Or something else entirely? How would the two (male) interpreters relate to the women and me, and could I explain the concepts and ideas clearly enough? There were lots of questions, so I wrote a letter (which was translated into Dari) to the women, suggesting some topics and ideas. The reply came back that they were enthusiastic and had a couple of suggestions. I was not much clearer about what might be useful, but hopefully I had sent a message that this would be as collaborative as possible, not ideas imposed on them. In the same way, they organised themselves into the workshop groups. So I did what preparation I could and exchanged some more messages on WhatsApp − but as usual, I jumped on the plane with ideas and a wheelie case full of resources that I might − or might not − use. Fortunately, none of these travelled home with me.
I met the interpreters on Sunday, then Khatera and I met, talked about the workshops, and went shopping for felt-tip pens, woollen balls, packets of sweets, semi-precious stones (a brilliant find by Khatera) and other bits and pieces I had no room for in my luggage. In my own therapeutic work with refugees and others who have experienced violence, human rights abuses, loss, traumatic bereavements and/or exile, using calming, creative activities can in itself have a therapeutic effect, or be helpful when having difficult, painful conversations. Khatera and I went through the slides and what I’d prepared, and with her approval, I was ready to give it a go....
Khatera − we all knew about the possibility of these workshops through our Women’s WhatsApp group; when we saw the topics to be covered, we had lots of discussion and felt these were really speaking to the needs we currently had, and felt that this would help heal our wounds at some level and enable us to start rebuilding our energy and hope. We divided ourselves into groups of nine or 10 participants, preferring to group with each other based on our profession and experiences in Afghanistan. Or we chose to be with others with the closest experiences, so we had diverse participation in groups as well. It was good that it was our choice, so we could be comfortable with the women we would be working with.
After the date for the workshops was confirmed, before Jane arrived in Athens, I was asked by IBA to help buy some of the resources that would be needed. With some of the more special items, like the semi-precious stones, Jane and I went looking for these together.
Most importantly, when I met Jane on Sunday and we went through the topics in detail, I was really happy to see the activities and the slides and handouts − they were so colourful and well prepared! − and I found the answers to all my questions. Many of the women were feeling hopeless; they did not know how to adjust, they had forgotten what their strengths were; they felt weak, very weak; and hopeless and stressed.
I could see how these workshops could help build up their strengths again, give them hope, provide the opportunity to feel positive and allow them to talk openly. I had the feeling that these topics and planned activities were really taking on and tackling the challenges I also had, of the struggle to find the way forward and how to adjust myself to the hardest time of my life that I’d experienced since August 2021.
Infact, I was really amazed to see the topics of the handouts, and that evening, I quickly went on the WhatsApp group and sent a message saying − “You will be really happy! Please don’t miss this opportunity! Go to this session!” And they did!
| The Workshops|| |
Jane − I ran seven workshops during the week for a total of 51 women, each lasting three hours. I think we were all surprised at how successful the workshops were and how much the women enjoyed them. I am not sure ‘enjoyment’ was at the top of my list when I was thinking about what they’d been through and what they might find helpful! The women had divided themselves into small groups of six to nine, as I wanted to keep the groups small enough to feel comfortable and safe for whatever conversations we might have. This also gave the women the opportunity to have choice and control over who they worked with − an important theme in the workshops as they already had so much choice and control snatched away from them.
The first two groups on the first day did look rather puzzled when the first thing I introduced them to was a table-full of activities: colour pens, cards and pictures to colour in, embroidery threads, stickers, cue cards and colourful cut-out hearts and flowers. But by the first evening, the women’s WhatsApp group was buzzing with messages, enthusiasm and pictures of hearts and flowers, which meant the women on the following days knew to expect the unexpected − this was not going to be a formal lecture of any kind!
I had divided the topics for the workshops (on slides and handouts and in the activities) into three broad areas: the impact of trauma and loss; living in limbo in Greece; and coping strategies and building resilience. Trauma and loss addressed the physical, emotional, cognitive and behavioural impacts that violence, bereavement and other losses can have on people and the struggle to make sense of harrowing experiences. Living in limbo considered the challenges and opportunities of temporary life in Greece: the inability to begin to put down new roots and the continued uncertainty, but also the chance to renew hope and begin to make plans to achieve goals and dreams for the future. Coping strategies and building resilience looked at many of the psychological and practical ways to strengthen coping and build resilience, of which the women already had a great deal.
Well, I quickly discovered a 3-hour workshop was not long enough to properly cover all that! And neither had I predicted what they would find most useful. Although I had often worked with interpreters before, it took time as always to clarify words and concepts, to ensure that the interpretation was as accurate as possible, and that I was kept in the picture when lengthy conversations between the interpreters and the women took place. There were a few interesting miscommunications! I would have opted to work with women interpreters given the choice, but only two men were available (one who had worked as an interpreter, one who had not). Fortunately, both were already known to the women, so the women felt comfortable. Both men were in exile themselves, and both said how useful they found the workshops for themselves.
We always spent time acknowledging the impact of the women’s harrowing past experiences and enormous losses, though we quickly swapped the word “trauma” for “stress,” which seemed more normal and understandable. Indeed, each night, I would amend − or add − slides, building from that day’s work. We did not spend all that much time discussing their painful experiences, as this would not have been appropriate in such short workshops without sufficient time to process and support them over what might have emerged. But they found it very helpful to have their reactions, feelings, thoughts and behaviour validated and to be reassured that those reactions were entirely normal given their experiences. We likened their minds, after their acutely distressing experiences and continued stressful and uncertain lives and futures to an untidy linen cupboard (and how they could “tidy it up”), which really resonated with them and caused much laughter − it was definitely their favourite image on the slides in every workshop!
We talked a little about hopes and anxieties about the future and life in limbo in Greece, but not that much, as most had now, with relief, received their visas from Canada and were waiting for flights. Some were booked for the May 25 flight, and more flights in June were announced during the week, creating a mix of excited anticipation and some uncertainty about what the future would hold.
But the topic that resonated the most was coping strategies and building resilience, and in all the workshops this is what we spent most time on. We talked about the women’s existing strengths, qualities and skills, which they carried with them from Afghanistan and would take into their future lives. We discussed ways of keeping hope alive, using Afghani proverbs and ideas from their own and other cultures and refugees, for example, Syrian women who were further ahead in their journeys. We talked about − and tried out − some of the techniques for managing stress, and for ‘grounding’ oneself if feeling particularly panicky or anxious. If preoccupied by distressing thoughts or images, feeling fearful for no good reason, or extremely distressed, we looked at how to ‘anchor’ (or connect) oneself to calming and positive thoughts and feelings by holding a special object (which is where the semi-precious stones came in).
During all the workshops most of the women became absorbed in drawing, colouring pictures and cards, making friendship bracelets, or writing messages to loved ones (and kindly even to me) on the cut-out hearts. These seemed to be calming activities in themselves, and I had not at all predicted the women would become so absorbed by them.
The thing I had really hoped to do was remind the women of their skills, their strengths and their amazing professional and personal qualities, that they already possessed and could carry with them into the future. Because I do know that in exile, when you leave your country, you leave your job, you leave everything and it is very hard to hang on to who you are. But first, I needed to acknowledge their losses and pain, normalise their emotions and reactions, and help them find a way of keeping hope alive. I hope I was able to do this.
Khatera − They were outstanding workshops for all the women struggling to cope with so many changes and adjusting their lives and expectations after the disaster that had happened to them. I was amazed to see the wonderful comments and feedback from each group on the group WhatsApp chat after the workshop each day. The energy, happiness and regaining of hope could be clearly seen in how the women expressed themselves and how they felt about the workshops. The women shared a lot of details about the effectiveness of the workshops, particularly what strengths they still had and what they could still do to manage their lives and make the best of opportunities.
The workshops were very healing: the women didn’t want to seek individual help from psychologists, as many felt that to see a psychologist meant they were mentally unwell. But while they were sitting and talking in their group, their emotions and problems were coming out, and it was very easy, and very easy communication. They openly discussed and shared their thoughts, their feelings and they felt better. They began to remember and recognise their strengths again: ‘yes, we can go forward, yes we can do that!’ And the entire group of women had the feeling of love and appreciation and being valued; they felt very loved and very valued.
| Celebration Time|| |
Jane − We ended with a big party for as many women and their kids who could attend, which was a really nice opportunity for them to meet before many of them would fly to Canada and their new lives. Hopefully the workshops gave them a little time and a safe space to reflect on what they’d been through and how far they’d already come, have their experiences validated, and learn or build on some coping techniques. I hope they carry with them into the future some of the things they valued and enjoyed from these workshops.
Khatera − The ending party was a surprise for all the women and completely unexpected! Jane planned this party to value the women’s strengths and provide an opportunity for all groups to get together, along with their children, and have fun, eat and exchange ideas and experiences. It had rarely been possible to meet together like this, and to spend time away from all the anxiety and tension. This party enabled everyone to feel freedom in a safe space, to exchange thoughts, ideas and hopes, while many families were still living in limbo.
Many thanks to Nicola Lester for her kind support and ideas.