Face to Face with the Fellows
In recognition of World Refugee Day—and to kick off a new Q&A series featuring the inaugural class of Obama Foundation Fellows — we’re interviewing Zarlasht Halaimzai, founder of Refugee Trauma Initiative (RTI). Zarlasht — a former refugee herself — founded RTI in 2016 to provide vital psychological aid and psychosocial support to refugees arriving in Greece who had fled conflicts abroad. Prior to founding RTI, she worked in the UK, Pakistan, Afghanistan and along the Syrian border with Turkey, helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds gain access to education.
Q: Can you start by telling us about the mission of Refugee Trauma Initiative and what you’re trying to achieve with your work?
A: Refugee Trauma Initiative is a small organization that provides psychosocial support for refugees in Greece. We work with people who have experienced violence in their home country—they are forcibly displaced, they have lost their home, and they undertake journeys that are incredibly dangerous and traumatic. In some cases they have lost a member of their family while making the journey. By the time they arrive in Greece they have experienced a range of seriously traumatic events and our job is to work with them to help them settle in the new context and start a new life.
Q: I can imagine most people reading this would consider this very daunting work. What inspired you to begin RTI in the first place?
A: I was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, during a war, so my childhood was spent in a place where there was very, very little security. My parents were forced to leave my home when I was 11 years old; then it took us four years to get to the UK, where we finally settled and started a new life. I know first hand what it's like to lose your community, your home, your family, your language and what kind of fracture that causes in you. And so my work is very much informed by that experience. Because people need support. People need—if you have that kind of experience—you need to heal and rebuild your life, and that's exactly what we do.
Q: Most people understand the need for providing healthcare or food or supplies to people in refugee camps. Why the need for psychological support?
A: No matter where you're from and what you do, if you lose a member of your family that you love, if you lose a child, if you lose your home, it all feels the same. It's the same feelings of devastation and grief and inability to cope with the rest of your life.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to an Afghan woman who had been in Greece for a year, and she was just feeling so anxious and doubtful about making the decision to come to Europe. I was talking to her, and her feelings were all about guilt and feeling like maybe she made the wrong decision because her children were still experiencing so much uncertainty waiting for their application in Greece.
Refugees have very little in terms of access to basic needs. Most of the time, they're not going to school, they aren't getting the basic support that they need and so parents feel really terrible about not being able to provide that for them. That's exactly why refugees who have those kind of experiences need the kind of support we provide.
Q: What surprises you most about this work?
A: Working with young refugees, particularly really young children, I am continuously amazed at how resilient they are and how much difference a very simple intervention can make in their lives. Young children, particularly in their early years, are hugely impacted by experiences of violence and of chronic stress. But if you provide a safe space for them and somewhere where they can feel secure, play with other children, and have access to adults who take care of them, they really flourish. Even though they've seen the worst of humanity, most of them continue to be kind and retain a sense of optimism. I'm always amazed at how quickly they go back to being children.
Q: What do you know now that you wish you’d known back when you began the Initiative?
A: When I started Refugee Trauma Initiative I really had no idea how much work it was going to be and how involved I needed to be in order to make it work. When you're a social entrepreneur, what you're doing really becomes your life. You have to live it and breathe it all the time. So I wish I knew how intense and difficult and busy it was going to be when I started so I could put into place better strategies for taking care of myself and for being a more present daughter, sister, friend.
Q: What do you think people should remember on World Refugee Day?
A: We're living in a time where more people are on the move than ever before. More and more people are going to leave their home for many different reasons—war, climate change, poverty. It’s one of those issues that we really need to meet head on as a global community and not sweep under the rug. I get so surprised when people think about this issue as something that will disappear. It's not going to disappear; it's something that will continue happening so we really need to have an honest conversation about how we're going to deal with this. How can we support millions of people who are leaving their home because they have no other choice?
Q: Finally, how do you see the Obama Fellowship helping you extend the impact of your work?
A: I hope that the Fellowship gives me and RTI a platform where we can talk about refugee rights and talk about the kind of care that's necessary for refugees to start a new life. I think psychological and emotional care is an essential part of any integration program, and it's an essential part of emergency response. And I hope to advocate for that.
I think often the lived human experience gets lost in the narrative about refugees in the media, but each of these people, every person that we work with has a unique life and they deserve to be given a chance, and looking after them in moments where they really, really need care should be a priority.
You can learn more about Zarlasht and the RTI and meet other fellows here.