The war in Ukraine has displaced millions of people within weeks. Many have crossed the border to Poland, others to Slovakia, Lithuania and Hungary. This has led to the need for an acute humanitarian response to ensure the safety of refugees. The humanitarian response involves a large number of organisations and individuals. This creates a risk of fragmentation in the support that refugees have access to. “Coordination of the response is vital to ensuring that interventions are meaningful,” says Anna Goloktionova, an expert on mental health and psychosocial support (DSS MHPSS).
“The refugees are very vulnerable. Many people want to help, but not knowing what you are doing can be risky. Uncoordinated efforts can lead to inefficient, inappropriate and even harmful interventions.” The Dutch Surge Support facility (DSS) has experts in MHPSS and DSS water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). Several experts are now in Ukraine’s neighbouring countries to help coordinate the interagency response. They also ensure the availability of psychosocial support for Ukrainian refugees. Anna Goloktionova, Murat Can Birand Apaydin and Maura Reap work as MHPSS experts from Poland, Hungary and Lithuania, respectively. Helen Salvestrin and Alex Velzeboer work as a WASH experts in Ukraine.
Anna left Kyiv with her children and dog on the first day of the war. After 7 days of travel and 2 days of waiting at the border, she entered Poland. A few weeks later, she started her first assignment with MHPSS, supporting UNHCR in coordinating the MHPSS response in Poland. “I left Ukraine in the early stage of the war. Although 7 days of living in the car was difficult, I consider myself privileged and lucky. Lucky because I could hear the shelling and see the smoke of explosions, but at a safe distance. Privileged because I was able to leave by car, unlike many leaving on foot in the freezing cold,” says Anna. “I experienced a storm of difficult feelings and felt guilty for leaving. But then I realised that, after being able to recover, I could use this personal experience to contribute to the humanitarian response. I know from experience what the refugees now need.”
The newspaper headlines focus on trauma. Yet, Anna believes that most Ukrainian refugees will recover without trauma-focused treatment. Instead, the response should first focus on making people feel safe. Anna explains, “It starts with simple things, like respecting human dignity and ensuring the availability of adequate shelter, food and sanitary facilities. We need to give refugees information to find accommodation, cash, schools and healthcare. The stress from being in a new country is normal, and over time people recover.” The challenge for everyone in a situation like this is that you do not know if and when you will see your clients again. “It is my task to make a single session meaningful and strengthen their resilience.”
Taking into account the needs of refugees is extremely important for a meaningful response. Anna has one important message for experts working in crises. “Let go of your preconceptions and listen. Open your eyes and ears and connect with the local community and those affected. You need to learn from talking to people and adjust the response accordingly.” Murat adds, “In my work worldwide, I have seen completely different understandings and cultural norms on mental health. The MHPSS response must be evidence-based and culturally adapted.”
In Poland, Anna connects with the local mental health community to exchange knowledge on psychosocial support. “Of course, some refugees will need more specialised support than others. Those with previous mental health issues are often overlooked. Yet, it is important that they quickly gain access to relevant services wherever they are.”
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DSS supports the operations of humanitarian organisations during and immediately after a disaster or crisis by deploying experienced experts. “Working with DSS water offers an excellent opportunity to work across different environments with people with different skills,” says Helen. Murat has been deployed through DSS MHPSS several times. He says, “It requires particular skills to achieve the deployment goals, but because of the impressive coordination and support from the host organisation and DSS, I can focus on the assignment’s objectives.”
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