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Mental health

Finding counselors for traumatized refugees

Many refugees have survived harrowing experiences and some need psychological help when they get to safety. But Arabic-speaking psychologists are scarce. A new project is trying to change that, as Naomi Conrad reports.

Berlin Psychologin Mary Atfeh und ihr Mann (Privat)

Arabic-speaking counselors are scarce in Germany, but Mary Atfeh will soon bolster their ranks

As fighters of the self-proclaimed "Islamic State" (IS) inched ever closer to Salamiyah, a Syrian city close to Hama, Ali Ajjoub became increasingly desperate. He was waiting for German authorities to issue a visa for his wife: a friend of his had just been abducted by IS fighters in a nearby village and Salamiyah suddenly seemed a far more dangerous place.

In the end, the visa came through and Mary Atfeh - a petite brunette with long, wavy hair and a ready smile - joined her husband in Berlin. She emerged from the airport gate wearing her wedding gown, Ali recalls, smiling proudly, and the couple - who had had a civil wedding in Syria - celebrated their reunion in style.

The two belong to the more than 1 million refugees who arrived in Germany last year, as the country opened its borders to those fleeing the turmoil in the Middle East and beyond.

In a way, they have been extremely lucky: Their town, so far, has escaped the war and destruction that has engulfed much of Syria and neither of them had to endure the grueling, dangerous route across the Mediterranean Sea – Ajjoub flew to Germany from Dubai, where he had been working as a civil engineer, but failed to secure a visa for his wife.

And yet, Mary told DW, in their spotless, cozy flat in Berlin decorated with photos of the happy couple, "the war is always present, in the news and in conversations with friends."

Crash course in counseling

But soon, it will also be part of her job. Mary, a psychologist who worked with children with autism back in Syria, is one of 12 Syrian refugees who are being trained to work as counselors with refugees.

Deutschland Arts against Trauma in Köln (Hassan Deveci)

The 'Arts against Trauma' project run by Kurdish artist Hassan Deveci in Cologne also seeks to help Syrian refugees overcome their past

The project is being jointly run by the by the Catholic University for Applied Sciences in Berlin and KommRum, a small, drop-in counseling center housed in a beautiful old villa in Berlin and supported by the Paritätische Wohlfahrtsverband Berlin, an umbrella group for various welfare organizations.

In KommRum's small seminar room, the organization's director Michael Webers told DW that organizations like his simply didn't have the necessary staff to deal with the specific needs of refugees: "There's a real lack of people who speak the language and also have the necessary cultural background and links to the community."

That's why he and a Syrian colleague of his came up with the idea of training Syrian refugees as counselors: Webers admits that he and the other organizers were careful in selecting the participants, who all had prior experience as psychologists, social workers or psychiatrists. "We made a point of asking the applicants about their attitudes, say towards the role of women. And how they would react if they realized that their patient had fought on the other side of the war."

But his fears proved baseless - and all the participants, he says, were eager to soak up as much knowledge as they possibly could.

Symbolbild syrische Asylbewerber in Deutschland (picture-alliance/dpa)

There is a need for counseling: Refugees have experienced the loss of relatives, their homes, others have experience of war

Demand for the supply

The first batch of 12 are set to start a four-week internship, having almost finished the three-month crash course, which included classes on issues like crisis intervention and depression, but also an introduction to Germany's current asylum law.

Webers is convinced that their chances for employment are "very, very good." Several hospitals have told him that they're interested in hiring them, as have counseling centers and even Berlin's Health Department.

For the need is great. While Webers is adamant that not all refugees are necessarily traumatized or in need of treatment, there is a need for support: Refugees have experienced the loss of relatives, their homes and work, others have first-hand experience of war - whether as combatants or civilians.

"And then there are some people who develop severe depression and panic attacks in the refugee shelters," he told DW.

And on top of that, some refugees arrive in Germany with prior conditions, such as depression or addiction.      

Mary for one, is thrilled to be going back to work again: "Look, I have the same background, the same language and culture as other refugees, I can help them."

Was she at all concerned about having to hear so many stories of war and horror from so close to home? Mary paused for a second, then shook her head: "I hear terrible stories all the time, on the news or when I talk to friends. I think it will be easier to bear when it's work, because I can help these people."

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