25 November 2015

Make time to listen to refugees, says trauma healing expert

Paul Boyle trains emergency workers and caregivers in how to help people recover from trauma. Here he is at a refugee registration centre in Serbia. Photographer: Katerina Ilievska

More than hand-outs, refugees arriving in Europe need ‘hand-ups’, says specialist who trains SOS emergency co-workers and SOS mothers to help traumatised children and adults.

Paul Boyle, a trauma healing expert and former emergency response co-ordinator for SOS Children’s Villages in East Africa and South Sudan who has trained more than 1,500 SOS mothers how to work with traumatised children, recently visited SOS Children's Villages’ emergency relief programmes in Macedonia and Serbia to conduct three-day workshops on trauma healing. Boyle also made time to speak to refugees in the transit centres.

SOS correspondent Katerina Ilievska asked him about the refugee situation and what can be done for the refugees.

KI: What is needed to help refugee children and their families?

PB: Sometimes we have the impression we must be doing something for refugees. SOS Children’s Villages has a different methodology. We are just there for them - human to human, eye to eye. Supporting, caring.

I think SOS Children’s Villages is doing something very unique. While there are many aid workers giving out water and food and clothes, SOS Children’s Villages co-workers have completed three full days of training to help them understand trauma and what the refugees have gone through. The remarkable thing about SOS Children’s Villages co-workers is therefore their understanding of what’s going on in the hearts and minds of the refugees.

For example, this morning we talked to a man from Afghanistan. He spoke of his journey through Pakistan and Turkey, and how he was beaten up and insulted.

‘I’m not a poor man. I’m a doctor,’ the man said. He finds it undignifying to be observed and photographed by strangers. He said he called his father in Afghanistan and couldn’t stop crying. ‘I have no energy, I’m finished,’ he said.

We only listened to him. We didn’t ask questions. We encouraged him. We supported him. He immediately felt re-energised, because we were willing to give him our time. We weren’t giving him a hand-out, we were giving him a hand-up. And that hand-up of love and care and support and taking an interest in him really went a long way.

KI: Do you think the Child Friendly Spaces and ICT Corners will make a difference in the refugees’ lives?

PB: In reality it is also a family friendly space. The children are tired, their families are tired. The child friendly space is a place to rest, a place to relax. It is also a safe place for parents. SOS Children’s Villages is giving them an opportunity, even if only for five minutes, to just sit and gather their thoughts.

I don’t think there’s much more we can do. I think our facility is excellent. The staff is motivated and trained. They know what they’re doing and why they’re here.

KI: What more can be done, not only by SOS Children’s Villages, but also other organisations, to help refugees in transit?

PB: Let me rather tell you what we should not do. We should not restrict them. We should not build big fences. We should not close borders.

When we start closing doors, we will raise tensions. The refugees are traumatised. They will be very reactive.

I think we just need to give them safe passage. One of my concerns is that refugees see the police and the army when they enter a country, whether it’s in Macedonia or Serbia. This reminds them of war. Maybe we should try to have more people like SOS Children’s Villages co-workers at the border, welcoming them and encouraging them.

KI: Some borders are still fenced up. What effect do you think border closures will have if they continue?

PB: I think in some places, especially in Macedonia and Serbia, there is going to be a build-up of refugees. People will be stuck here instead of just passing through. It is like being in a prison. There is no free movement.

This will cause many problems for the refugees. They will feel restricted. They may feel depressed. It will create a lot of tension, not only for the refugees, but also in the local Macedonian community. Many Macedonians are also suffering, yet they don’t receive support. They only see a lot of resources allocated to refugees. It can create conflict, and that’s the last thing we want in the current situation.

KI: You have interacted with many of the refugees in the Macedonian transit centres. What do they tell you? What is your impression of their state of mind, of their spirit, of their general condition?

PB: I can tell you what they’re not thinking of. They’re not thinking of the past. They’re not thinking of the war. They’re not thinking of the loss of their family home.

Most refugees say they just have to keep going. This is typical of trauma. Traumatised people either fight or flee. The refugees have already fought. They might have fought their way out of their countries, across borders. They have fought for survival.

In Macedonia there is no need for fighting, thank God. But even here, in this centre, the refugees are afraid to stop. They just want to keep going. We need them to stop and reflect. Five minutes, ten minutes, half an hour. I think our co-workers are well trained to support them when they do stop for a moment.

KI: Do you have a message of advice to the residents of the countries along the transit route and at the destinations?

PB: We tend to think people we don’t know are strange. They look different, act different, talk different, eat different. But they’re not different. Humanity is humanity. We’re all the same.

I think we must give the refugees a chance. We mustn’t see them as a threat, but as people who can contribute to our societies. Many refugees are doctors, engineers, and other qualified people. If we are open and welcoming, they will accept us as we accept them.

KI: In light of the tragedy in Paris on 13 November, do you think the attitude of the local people on the transit route and in the destination countries will change? There is unconfirmed information that some of the attackers were on the refugee route. People react to this information whether it’s true or not.

PB: We must be careful not to play the blame game. There are good and bad French, good and bad Europeans, good and bad Syrians. However, the vast majority of people coming from Syria are loving, peaceful, caring and responsible individuals. They are families looking for a life. They’re not bringing terror, they’re escaping it.

Many of the Syrian refugees who are passing tell me they are here for their children. They say ‘we have no future, but our children have a future’. And they’re willing to risk their lives in order to give their children that future.


SOS Children’s Villages International is continuously expanding its efforts to relieve the plight of refugees arriving on European borders. In FYR Macedonia the organisation, in collaboration with UNICEF, has set up a child friendly space and information and communication technology (ICT) corner at the northern refugee transit centre at Tabanovce. A second child friendly space and ICT corner will soon open at the southern refugee transit centre at Gevgelija (Vinojug).

Read about SOS Children's Villages emergency response work for refugees.