Hand in hand in difficulties: Refugees support other refugees

Jaspy (R) and Hussein (L), both asylum-seekers from Sierra Leone, participate as facilitators in a peer-to-peer psychosocial support programme on Samos island. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis

In a room at the Closed Controlled Access Centre (CCAC) on Samos island, Greece, Jaspy* welcomes other asylum-seekers. They are gathered to discuss their experiences and feelings, during a self-help group.  With a calm face and a smile, Jaspy offers his hand to those in need of support, something that has proven to be vital for him as well.

Nobody is alone and I stand by your side”, Jaspy tells them, and starts the session.

The 20-year-old was forced to flee his country, Sierra Leone, in December 2021 and seek refuge following threats to his life. His long journey from Sierra Leone led him to Guinea, Iran and Türkiye, where he was arrested for irregular entry into the country.

While in prison in Türkiye, he met other Africans  who told him about a nearby country where – if they were lucky enough to arrive – they would finally be safe. At that time, Jaspy had not realized the country they spoke of was Greece, a name familiar to him from his school books.

The journey from Sierra Leone to Greece was dangerous and the experiences Jaspy endured traumatized him.

Jaspy eventually reached Samos in April 2022, and finally felt some hope. He was informed about self-help groups for the centre’s residents and decided to take part, to ease his own stress and to support others.

I am in this country because some people saved me and I want to give back. I want to save other people, too”, he says

Jaspy, asylum-seeker from Sierra Leone, participates as a facilitator in a peer-to-peer psychosocial support programme. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis

Jaspy now volunteers as a facilitator in self-help groups organized by UNHCR in collaboration with the Association for Regional Development and Mental Health (EPAPSY) and with financial support from the European Union.

This innovative peer-to-peer psychosocial support programme aims at training volunteer asylum-seekers and refugees in basic psychological skills, enabling them to provide psychosocial support to others through self-help groups.

The training for facilitators lasts approximately one and a half months, during which they are introduced to basic skills and become familiar with concepts, such as empathy, respect for different opinions and confidentiality. They also learn psychological first aid which enables them to manage crises.

The training is delivered by Community Psychosocial Workers who are refugees specially trained in mental health skills and tools through the same programme. Throughout the process, the team is supervised by qualified psychologists and social workers.

Upon completion of the training, the facilitators receive a certificate and are ready to lead a self-help group and start supporting other members of their community.

Jaspy has been inspired by his trainer Mehdi. Born in Iran to Afghan parents, Mehdi arrived in Greece in 2017 as an unaccompanied child to escape from the discrimination he faced in his country. Mehdi was very active as soon as he arrived, volunteering as a translator, then working as a cultural mediator in different organizations and finally as a community psychosocial worker in the peer-to-peer mental health programme.

He believes that this programme not only provides valuable psychosocial support, but also gives the opportunity for refugees to genuinely connect deeply with other people.

Community psychosocial workers use a participatory approach where they do not directly provide the solutions to trainees on how to handle the different challenges, but rather they teach them techniques on how to use their inner strength to find the answers themselves.

Mehdi, nevertheless, describes, how the experiences of other refugees affect him at a personal level.

If facilitators or members of self-help groups share something painful, it’s hard for me to hear it. But we have to control our emotions”, Mehdi says. He describes how much his “angels”, as he calls the professional psychologists of the programme, have helped him to manage this.

Jaspy and Mehdi, facilitator and Community Psychosocial Worker of the peer-to-peer psychosocial support programme, during an outreach session. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis

The self-help groups are formed on the basis of the languages spoken by the residents so as to facilitate communication among the group. In order to engage more participants in the programme, the community psychosocial workers and the facilitators frequently carry out outreach at the site. They also disseminate informative material which explain the objectives of the programme in a simple and visual way.

No mental health specialist is present in these groups, so the members determine themselves the topics of interest to them. Therefore, the discussion is not led by the western way of thinking and how we perceive their difficulties or the things that may empower them”, Nelly Georgiou, psychologist of EPAPSY, explains.

Hussein* is Jaspy’s compatriot, who also endured a very difficult journey to reach Greece and is also now a co-facilitator in the same self-help group.

At first I was psychologically traumatized. The training I received helped me manage my crises. Now I have more strength and I think it’s good to share my experience with the other residents of the camp so that they can understand that we are able to find solutions to everything we discuss”, Hussein says.

Philippos Barbaresos, another psychologist of EPAPSY, explains that participation in self-help groups is very empowering both for the facilitators and the group members.

The team is mainly there to listen. Non-judgmental listening and unhindered sharing of personal experiences among members breaks the unbearable feeling of loneliness and that’s the best thing the group can provide”, he says.

The shared experiences and languages help to create a safe space for participants to express their concerns and find solutions collectively giving them hope, optimism and strength.

Just before another session begins, Jaspy describes how this particular programme helped him and made him feel like he belonged in Greece. He hopes to have more opportunities to study and even envisions a career in Psychology.

Despite the difficult situations I have experienced, I am safe. You shouldn’t give up on life. Where there is life, there is hope”, he says with a smile and enters the room.

*Names have been changed for protection reasons