As part of its commitment to sharing best practice My View therapists deliver training to other professionals working with separated child refugees. Earlier this month, children’s psychotherapist Sarah Temple-Smith was invited to Norwich to talk about communication in the context of displacement.
“Tha’s a bi’ f wather ‘his mornin’, moi dare”* the taxi driver warned with admirable East Anglian understatement as we crawled through the driving rain and buffeting east winds of a classic Norwich spring morning.
Luckily it turned out the bad “wather” had actually kept a lot of drivers off the roads and we were soon at the U E A sports complex. Dried off and set up to go in the training room, we were warmly greeted by around 20 social workers and other professionals working with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Norfolk.
These children have been displaced by war or violence, or experienced sexual exploitation or trauma. They come from many different cultures, with different norms and find themselves, with no preparation, thrust into British society and family life. Travelling to the UK alone and having to navigate their way through the asylum system can have profound psychologically impact. For effective communication all this needs to be held in mind.
It’s often said if we want to understand what someone else is feeling, we should try to ‘walk a mile in their shoes’. To help the participants accomplish this I invited them to take part in a series of experiential exercises. Working in small groups, one participant was asked to role-play a non-English speaking refugee child, while the others were cast as the foster-family.
Each ‘family’ was given a card with a scenario of a problematic situation, such as the child suddenly leaving the room, or refusing to eat the food served at dinner, while the ‘child’ was given a scenario from their point of view. The group then needed to work with the child to solve the problem. The catch was they were not allowed to use any words.
Although the exercise was demanding, the participants soon forgot their self-consciousness and threw themselves into their roles. In feedback afterwards many of them reported that it had evoked powerful feelings of frustration and sadness in them. It also opened their eyes to how fraught with difficulty simple communication can become across cultural divides.
We then brainstormed best practice, much of it drawn from work with My View clients, to improve cultural competence and to be more aware of non-verbal communication clues.
Afterwards one participant commented that this work had given them ‘…Useful thinking about communication including simple comments/gestures and what this can mean to others’ while another acknowledged they felt they now had ‘greater cultural awareness to take into my work.’
During the rest of the day we took part in similar role-playing exercises on bereavement, trauma and the deep sense of loss shared by all refugees no matter their personal circumstances. We ended with a workshop around identity, each person using craft materials to fashion a ‘flag’ which communicated to others what goes to make up their personality and character.
For some this meant illustrating their love of sports or country of origin, while others used their flag to mark their social ideology, and in one case, even a personal bereavement.
At the end all of them agreed this was a great way to promote effective communication with a refugee child, even one who spoke no English – while also being a lot of fun! As one of them put it: ‘The flag exercise was a great example and really well thought out!’ and another, even more succinctly: ‘Love it, will definitely use this with children’.
*There’s a bit of weather this morning my dear