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5 ways to prepare yourself for working with refugees

Know your population

Every experience in working with refugees is a new journey and a new destination; thus, preparation is key. The first time I worked with refugees, it was mostly with the Syrian community in Greece. Being originally from the Arab world myself, I did not really think I needed much “preparation” to do before immersing myself in the immense world of refugee work. I thought that speaking the same language and having more or less the same holidays and traditions was enough to be able to know the population I was working with. Little did I know! No sooner did I start than I realized it was a whole new world of different ethnicities, complicated dialects and new customs and traditions that, even as an Arab, I have never heard of before. And although the experience of learning on the job was satisfying, I could tell that the things I did not know sometimes affected the way I performed at work through the way I approached the community, the way I sometimes made pre-assumptions on their needs just because I thought I came from a similar background and even the way I pronounced a few words in Arabic with my not so genuine Middle Eastern accent.

Taking another example, one of the most interesting experiences I had was with the Yazidi community from Iraq. Yazidis belong to a very particular ethno-religious minority predominantly in Iraq and if at some point I found it difficult to deal with all social groups of Syrian refugees, with Yazidis I was just utterly clueless for a very long time! When I was deployed at Skaramagas Refugee Camp in Athens, the biggest camp in Attika region at the time in terms of population, I had no idea I was going to be encountering such a big number of ethnicities and nationalities. And if I could change one thing about the way I prepared for my new experience back then, it would be to further research the backgrounds of the diverse populations I was going to work with. It is totally true that these are also things you learn along the way and that, despite all, this is my favorite way of learning. However, making your research on the people you will be working with is essential both for you and for the beneficiaries as culture shock is not only a concept related to travel, but it can also take place in any social context. And if you want to gain your beneficiaries’ trust as soon as possible to provide a good community based approach on working with refugees, you would not want culture shock to stand in the way.

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Research Country of Origin Information

There is a reason why refugees are refugees! Warsan Shire was more than right when she wrote her now very famous line “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark”. And if you are planning on working in the refugee context or already have a career in this field, you already understand this. However, with the growing number of refugees and asylum seekers in the world and the diversity of people’s backgrounds, countries and conflicts, it is sometimes difficult to keep updated on all the details of each and every context.

Depending on what exactly your position would be at your organization, the level of details you research on countries of origins might differ. However, every single person working with refugees, from the one spending his/her day in a refugee camp between tents to the one doing paperwork in an office, needs to have a basic knowledge on the conflicts that are arising in the world and making people leave their countries to seek asylum elsewhere.

If you are working in Refugee Status Determination, for example, this is the very core of your job! You are not in the position to decide whether or not an asylum seeker can be granted refugee status in your country if you do not have all the detailed information on the situation in his/her country of origin and on the national laws of that country. For other Protection positions, it is enough to understand the general context as it will help in identifying vulnerabilities among beneficiaries, in understanding trauma and triggers and eventually in putting in place effective systems and mechanisms for individual casework and follow up on different protection issues.

Information are quite easy to find, especially on EASO’s website (the European Asylum Service Office) which is regularly updated.

Start with zero stereotypes

Unconscious bias is a scientifically proven undetachable element of the human brain. Whether we admit it or not, we all have our own biases on everything and everyone around us which are mainly a result of our upbringing and the societal norms we are used to. And although we might be extremely careful in our daily life, especially if we are working in a multicultural environment such as that of refugees, sometimes unconscious bias manifests itself in the least expected ways. It can be the way we react to someone’s greeting, the way we keep pronouncing someone’s name incorrectly, the way we overly highlight our differences with someone… These are all genuinely innocent every day manifestations of unconscious bias that we might encounter during a conversation with someone from the exact same background or even with someone from our own family, let alone if you are working with people who might have come literally from the other side of the globe and whom you have always seen as different, with all meanings the word different might entail. Therefore, it is crucial, when starting a new experience working with refugees and asylum seeker, that you start afresh with zero stereotypes or biases. Neutrality is key here and learning along the way is the most rewarding experience as I mentioned earlier.

Manage your own expectations

When humanitarian workers are asked why they chose this type of career, their immediate answer often includes something about “changing the world” or “putting an end to refugees’ suffering” and other related ambitious statements. I keep remembering how my answer changed over the years from “I want to change the world” to “I want to help as I can” to “I want to make a change” in general. I do not know how big this change would be or what exactly I am changing but I have learned the hard way that there isn’t such thing as a humanitarian superhero. There are however people who are motivated and dedicated, who wake up every day to get their work done effectively and make all the effort they can without expecting anything in return. It is extremely frustrating to start a humanitarian career with the fixed idea that you and you alone would change the whole world and stop people from fleeing their home countries, to soon realize that it takes much much longer and a much bigger effort from a much higher authority to make the world a better place. That is why I would advise anyone to focus on their tasks have little expectations on the superhero part of the humanitarian world. If you complete your tasks on due time, you have made a change on your day. If you provide service to a refugee with no delays, you have made a change in his/her day. If you conduct your RSD interview and assess someone’s claim properly, you have definitely made a change in someone’s life. However, do keep your expectations low on anything that exceeds your power to avoid frustration; which also brings me to my final point.

Teach yourself to care for yourself

It goes without saying that working with refugees is not on the list of the top 10 easiest jobs in the world. And as rewarding as it is, a career in this field can be extremely draining and can affect one’s mental health intensely. Being exposed to people’s traumas, work pressure and other stress elements can lead to vicarious trauma, burnout and other psychological and mental health issues. This is when self-care becomes crucial for a healthier work and personal life. As a preparation for working with refugees, teach yourself how to better take care of yourself. Journal, go for a walk every morning, practice something you like… Find your own thing to keep your mental health intact and remember that you cannot be helping other people in need if you are not able to help yourself first!

About the author

Rahma Henchiri

Rahma Henchiri is an RSD/Protection Associate at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Her humanitarian journey started in refugee camps in Greece from the very first days of the “migration crisis” in the Eastern Mediterranean route (Turkey – Greece). She gained her experience through working with different international and local organizations in Greece before moving to other countries. She has been working with UNHCR for nearly two years now in two different duty stations. Her main focus currently is on asylum law, child protection and SGBV within the refugee communities.

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