Zarlasht Halaimzai

Providing psychological first aid to refugees, making mental health care integral to all relief efforts

The Problem:

The Syrian refugee crisis is the largest of our time, displacing nearly half of the country’s population, including four million refugees registered abroad. Meanwhile, violence in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to displace more and more people, adding to a growing and global refugee crisis. Camps are hugely difficult places to survive, as trapped refugees grapple with trauma, loss, abuse, depression, and suicides. Large aid groups have tried to provide psychosocial support, but the scale of the crisis, its vast and diverse demands, and sharp EU funding cuts in 2017 mean that most refugees rarely see a doctor, much less a therapist, sabotaging hopes for a stable, better life.

The Approach:

Refugee Trauma Initiative (RTI) has provided psychological first aid to refugees stranded at five camps and four community centres in Greece, using group-based sessions to foster community and resilience. Working in refugees’ native languages, RTI’s team of mostly Middle Eastern women therapists runs groups for women, men, teens, expecting mothers, and small children; sessions include talk, movement, art, and mindfulness therapies. More than 2,200 refugees have been reached. RTI builds capacity, drawing doctors, teachers, artists, and others from within the refugee population to help RTI and to launch their own programs—including a refugee-led school for children, parent groups, language classes, and committees to work with camp management—deepening agency, hope, and connection. RTI also runs groups and trainings to support other aid workers. In the future, it aims to train more therapists from diverse backgrounds that reflect its patient population, and to work systemically with NGOs and governments to make mental health care an essential part of any refugee response.

My civic hero:

Laila Haidari, an Afghan woman who runs a rehabilitation centre for heroin addicts. It’s called the Mother Trust Organisation.


Face to Face with the Fellows: Zarlasht Halaimzai