It is Saturday morning, 9 o’clock, and a group of 40 women and one men are drinking coffee and tea inside an almost empty university complex in Copenhagen. Women Refugee Route (WRR), together with the Global Refugee Studies (GRS) course at Aalborg university has invited social workers, scholars, volunteers, experts and other interested people, to spend a whole weekend focussing on the topic “working with refugee women”. It is not the first time WRR is hosting such a training, but it is the first one our team is hosting outside of Greece and away from so-called “hotspots”. Most of the refugees here are not “in transit”, looking to move further, but are actually hoping to stay or are already living in the country for a while. How to best work with these women and how to support them in efficient and sustainable ways, is what this trainings focused on.
One of the participants is Lara, who has been working with an organisation supporting asylum seekers in Copenhagen for around six months. She joined the training to “increase my knowledge with regards to addressing gender-related matters and sharing some input on gender-responsive work approaches with my colleagues and supervisors.” Mina Jaf, founder and director of WRR, is hosting the fifth training of this kind since she started the NGO in 2016 and is strongly convinced that such initiatives are crucial to “not only improve the situation of the refugee women, but also the people working with them. Too often volunteers are overwhelmed by the stories they hear, the workload and the helplessness the sometimes feel. To improve the situation we have to give the right tools to the people who can make a difference and support them along the way.”
The training kicks off with an icebreaker, where participants introduce each other in a form of speed-dating. Afterwards, we start with the session on “Why refugee women”, discussing not only the general focus of the training but also the ideas and terminology in the refugee context. Evelien, WRR team member and facilitator of this session, asks the participants to write down what they understand by the term “refugee’. Some of the post-its read “Refugee: a person displaced due to war or persecution”, “Person who had to leave home to secure or to get a better choice in life” or “Vulnerable. escaped from war/crisis/personal matters”.
At WRR we are using the term “refugee” to describe a situation, not a person. The focus on women has many reasons, one of them being the fact that the refugee convention as well as other legal texts, national and international, often neglect scenarios where a person is fleeing because of their gender and the implications it has on their physical and psychological integrity.
In order to paint a comprehensive picture of the realities women in displacement face, the following session discussed the need for self-advocacy, increased adversity of refugee women and intersectionality. One crucial point is to understand the difference between the concept of “sex” and “gender” to ten discuss different forms of gender based violence as well as cultural, physical and psychological barriers to care. Especially the part of the training focussing on health issues, is always well received, as many people working with refugee women are faced with medical conditions exceeding their background knowledge and training. For these sessions WRR is working with Dr. faith Traeh, who has been working as a doctor for different organisations in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
In general the trainings cover two main aspects – how can participants best support the women they are working with and how can they also create a situation for themselves, where they feel informed, equipped and empowered. Over the years we have encountered numerous volunteers but also professional social workers, who are facing challenges due to a lack of training, self-care and information about their rights, duties but also limitations. These and other aspects are tackled in sessions of self care, sustainable and responsible field work, gender mainstreaming, psychological first aid and cultural mediation. The team applies different methods to engage the participants, for example for self-care, everyone is closing their eyes while raising their hands in response to questions such as “Do you sometimes feel you are only one who can help?”, “Do you feel exhausted even when sleeping enough?” or “Are you neglecting your own safety?”. Like many times before, we saw a lot of hands in the air during this session, underlining the pressure many volunteers and field workers put on themselves. “Know when to ask for help, leaving or asking for help is not giving up”, is only one in a list of tips, Dr. Treah shared with the participants and it is also something “I have to live by, in order to not completely overwhelm myself”, she states.
Two days seem long, but they pass by in a whiplash. Especially, when you have engaged and active participants, exhausting easily turns into motivation and empowering energy. Already before the last session, a meet-up has been scheduled, people have exchanged contacts and are planning projects together. From our side, this is exactly what WRR is aiming for, as we believe that a network of like-minded individuals who share the will to improve the situation for refugee women and share knowledge is one of the most powerful resources to have.
We are thankful that Fundaction allowed us to carry out this training by awarding us with the Fundaction grant. Further we thank Martin Lemberg from Global Refugee Studies at Aalborg University (our first but surely not last male participant) and our fantastic facilitators, organising team members, media team and, of course, all participants for their time and energy!
*names of participants have been changed as our trainings follow strict guidelines on confidentiality
written by Roxane Roth