June 8 2016

SOS Hungary helps unaccompanied minor refugees to cope with post-traumatic stress

Psychologist Julia Richter, who has been working at the shelter for unaccompanied minors in Fót, just outside Budapest, says that many of the youngsters are suffering from post-traumatic stress. SOS Children’s Villages Hungary is providing social and emotional support to help them cope with their experience.

SOS Children’s Villages Hungary has set up a Mobile Team to support refugees at different locations in the country. Social workers, intercultural mediators, translators, doctors and a psychologist have been providing individual and group support to unaccompanied minors, refugee children and families. 

What has your work been like at the centre for unaccompanied minors in Fót since February?

When we received access to the facilities in Fót in February, we started building a relationship with the administration, the educators and, of course, with the young refugees living there. There were 30 to 40 youngsters at the time. We wanted to show them that we will have continuous presence at the shelter and that they can count on us.
In my work with them, we usually talk about their journey and about how they are feeling today. I make sure they understand that after such a long and tiring journey and all they had to go through in their countries of origin, it is normal to have some difficulties – sleeping disorders, problems remembering things, feeling afraid, unsafe or sad, missing home, etc.
Having these symptoms does not mean that they are going crazy. There are things we can do about them and I am ready to help. We are not using classical therapy, but it is working. Some kids are easier to engage in a conversation and more open than others, but I can see that people trust us. Many of them, however, do not stay in Fót for a long time. They are often gone within a few days.

What are the most common post-traumatic symptoms young asylum-seekers suffer from?

Some minors are put in detention centres when they arrive in Hungary, where they might spend one to six months until their age is determined. For many, this is a very traumatic experience. They arrive in an EU country where they expected to find safety and hope for a better future, and they feel treated like criminals. In my experience, anxiety is a very common symptom among them. They are afraid of being locked up again, some of them have flashbacks of terrible things that happened, and they have trouble sleeping.
Unaccompanied minor refugees have often had traumatic experiences in their home countries and on their long journeys to Europe. Photo: SOS Archives
Avoidance is also a very common symptom. They avoid thinking about the past, their families or anything that would bring back memories. Some of them have difficulty controlling their anger. Anger is one of the only emotions they express – which often results in aggressive behaviour.
Most of these minors come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan or Bangladesh, and most of them are young men. It is difficult for them to express their emotions; often it is culturally not accepted. There was a boy, for example, who found out that his father had died since he left. He was very upset and started crying. His roommates tried to help him, but they also told him to stop crying – that crying would not bring his father back. I explained that each person reacts differently, that it was OK to cry and that we should let him do whatever he feels like doing.

Have you noticed other cultural differences?

What we have here is an interesting mix of cultures. I have seen that these young people are very open; they want to learn and adjust to our culture. But it is important that we have intercultural mediators in our team so we can help them understand each other better.

What has been the impact of your work?

We have only been here for a few months, but I can see that some of the young people I have been working with are feeling better. There are different factors that might contribute to this improvement, but I can definitely see that our presence has a positive impact and that our team is making a difference in everyday life.
For me, small things are often the best signs of progress – when these kids say that they sleep better, that they are not afraid of going crazy anymore, that they have fewer symptoms and are feeling more joy.
Read more about SOS Children's Villages' work with refugees

Read more about SOS Children's Villages' work in Hungary