Since 2016, Refugee Trauma Initiative has provided vital psychological help to thousands of refugees experiencing the trauma of war, torture and displacement. We also train and support humanitarians, helping them to provide the best possible care for those in need.
We believe that, by connecting with refugees in their own language, and by providing them with continuing care, support and guidance informed by psychological principles, we can help them to process their experiences and foster their integration into society.
RTI was the brainchild of our Executive Director and Co-Founder, Zarlasht Halaimzai, who was herself a refugee from Afghanistan at the age of 12. After returning from the Syrian border where she worked as a humanitarian, she trained in Child and Adolescent Psychotherapeutic Counselling. Then, in 2015, she visited the Calais Jungle camp as an aid volunteer. Struck immediately by the lack of volunteers who could speak the refugees' languages and could understand the experience and culture of the people living in the camp , she decided to do something about it.
In April 2016, RTI arrived in Idomeni, where some 13,000 refugees had become stranded at the Greek-Macedonian border. We put up a basic tent in the camp and got to work, providing group sessions for men, women and children who had experienced violence, displacement and torture. Within weeks, the demand for our support had grown enormously. We brought in highly-experienced professionals who spoke Arabic and Farsi to deliver a wide range of psychosocial support activities in the camp. In the six months that followed, we delivered over 600 sessions and reached nearly 1000 individuals through group support sessions, art therapy, mindfulness and separate sessions for individuals, couples and families.
At Idomeni, we saw the need to provide humanitarians with support. Most volunteers had not received any training prior to their arrival, and many were struggling to cope with the upsetting and, sometimes, dangerous nature of the work. We organised workshops in cultural sensitivity, security, and self-care, and we ran debriefing sessions to allow them to talk about their experiences. By promoting self-care amongst the volunteers we were also ensuring a better standard of care for refugees.
In 2017, with many of the camps closing, we shifted our focus to supporting refugees in shelters in Thessaloniki. With the support of our partner Help Refugees, we designed an Early Childhood Care and Development Programme, Baytna (which means 'our home' in Arabic). Baytna is a pre-school education programme with a special emphasis on psyhosocial care. It was developed especially to take into account the particular needs of refugee children who have may have suffered trauma could be showing signs of toxic stress. We organised a regular schedule of sessions in community centres across the city, to provide long-term care and create a solid infrastructure of support to refugee families.
Our vision is to create lasting programmes of care in the ongoing refugee crisis. In October 2017, we helped launch Ethos, a local NGO that will build on the work that we do, and has a particular focus on refugee integration. We are building skills within Ethos to help them establish sustainable programmes that will enable thousands of refugees who are seeking asylum in Greece to start a new life. Together we are running a shelter for unaccompanied minors who turn 18, where they learn life skills essential for independent living and finding employment. We are also working with the Greek government at a local level. Later this year we will open a refugee day care centre with the Municipality of Thessaloniki and Open Society Foundations to support young children and their families.
Our approach to programming is simple and scalable. By creating programmes that support wellbeing and belonging, we are ensuring that refugees are able to rebuild their lives.