Helping people cope with the trauma they have experienced
In the wake of the conflict in Iraq, more than 2 million Iraqis have left their homes and everything they own behind them. A large proportion has suffered physical and psychological violence. Over 900,000 of them have been displaced to Iraqi Kurdistan, notably in the governorates of Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah. Olivia Nevissas is one of the staff members deployed by Handicap International to help the families made most vulnerable by the crisis.
Displaced families in Erbil. Iraq. | © Camille Borie / Handicap International
Olivia, you came to Iraqi Kurdistan last November, what does your work with Handicap International involve?
It is my job to support the psychosocial support activities implemented by Handicap International for displaced Iraqis who have fled the violence. There will soon be eight psychosocial workers in the governorates of Erbil, Dohuk, and Sulaymaniyah who we can count on to carry out this work. They notably implement family mediation, group sessions and individual interviews in order to help people cope with the trauma they have experienced and also to reconnect with those around them.
The people who have fled their homes have often had to travel for days, in extremely difficult conditions, before finding a safe place. They are then moved from camp to camp or from makeshift shelters, such as buildings under construction or schools, to new camps. Entire villages have been dispersed and these people have been allocated new homes with no regard for their community identity being taken into account. This means thousands of displaced people have to learn to live together, while also managing daily problems, and coping with trauma they have suffered.
What are the needs in terms of psychosocial aid in Iraqi Kurdistan?
We have seen cases of very severe distress amongst the people arriving from the province of Sinjar, which is a province in north-west Iraq where fighting against the Islamic State group took place a short while ago. The women have been exposed to terrible physical and psychological violence and many people have witnessed the deaths of family members.
Their needs are, therefore, immense the people who have fled the fighting have been marked by terrible memories. However, we do not yet have any official figures on this aspect, partly because people continue to be displaced within Kurdistan. This makes it very difficult to carry out an assessment of all of the needs which would require extensive coordination between the humanitarian organisations working in the region.
We have also seen inter-community tensions in the camps and the shared accommodation where people of different religions are mixed together and where difficult living conditions are made worse by the extreme weather conditions: heatwaves in summer, heavy rains, snow, ice and so on. On top of all this, there is a total lack of visibility regarding the future. Exactly how long will the displaced people have to stay in the camps and communities before being able to return home? All these factors create an ideal breeding ground for tensions and at-risk behaviours targeting the most vulnerable, such as women.
What are you doing to help these people?
Assistance needs to be provided in two phases: initially through psychosocial support activities - mainly in groups and then through individual support.
We need to identify other local and international stakeholders who are also setting up psychosocial activities in Iraqi Kurdistan. At the same time, we are identifying focal points within the communities so that they can point us towards individuals who need help. We are also opening a centre, partially dedicated to psychosocial support in the Cham Mishko displaced persons camp, near Zakho in the north-west of the governorate of Dohuk. We plan to organise group sessions. The themes covered during the sessions will be identified according to the beneficiaries' needs. Our objective is to provide a safe environment to bring people out of isolation, and to create a dialogue between displaced people in the camps. Ideally, in the short term, we would like to offer these activities to people living outside the camps.
Our teams of psychosocial workers are also able to help families by providing mediation at home, and individual sessions.
For people who need psychiatric support or counselling, in the short term we plan to provide care in partnership with public health centres.
What difficulties have you met with to date?
The first is linked to the movement of people within Iraqi Kurdistan itself: it is difficult to identify people who need support and set up activities over several weeks. We have also observed that humanitarian aid in Iraqi Kurdistan initially consists of assessing needs, sometimes in the form of lengthy interviews with the families, without any real tangible assistance being provided in the days and weeks that follow. We have experienced a phase where the families and individuals were weary of telling their stories. Having said that, our teams have been listening to displaced people and others, as part of the "Psychological First Aid" provided and this has been of vital importance.