Learning To Let Go - Refugee Council
April 25, 2016

Learning To Let Go

As the refugee crisis intensifies, it seems like every day you can open your paper and be confronted with even more terrible descriptions of hundreds of desperate people drowning, or being killed under trains or in lorries as they risk their lives to reach safety. And perhaps the stories seem even more poignant when they involve children fleeing war or violence on their own.

Here at the Refugee Council our My View therapists work with unaccompanied refugee children to help them find therapeutic ways to move past their traumatic experiences– sometimes in remarkably imaginative ways. Therapist Sarah Temple-Smith explains…

From their relaxed manner and cool poses you could easily be forgiven for guessing this group of 15 to 17 year olds had come to the sports centre for nothing more demanding than an afternoon’s kick-a-bout or a swimming session.

The reality was something very different; they were here to experience an indoor climbing wall. And by the time they had listened to the safety instructions, strapped each other into their harnesses and donned their yellow safety helmets, it was clear the reality of what they were about to do was dawning on them -fast and hard.

As they walked into the climbing hall, eyes widened and mouths fell silent, seeing for the first time the walls they were going to have to scale. The instructors went through the dos and don’ts of climbing up. Then they explained how to come down, a very different matter which, somewhat counter-intuitively, requires you to kick out away from the wall, letting go of both hand-holds and safety rope, and, relying on your partner to take up the slack of your rope, gliding back down to the ground in a casual sitting position.

For young people who may have experienced the near disastrous results of trusting their safety to others in their past, we knew this was a big ask. On top of this we were asking them to ‘let go’. As I watched them it hit me that this could be seen as -an almost perfect therapeutic metaphor for recovery…

Perhaps not surprisingly it was the girls who felt OK to vocalise their fears, while the young men seemed more keen on maintaining their cool in front of their peers. Bearing this in mind, we partnered each young man with a young woman– one to climb, one to feed through their partner’s safety rope. Pretty soon the hall was ringing with the shrill screams of one young woman- never mind that she’s shinned up the wall to the manner born and is already nearing the top!

Afterwards one young person commented this had shown her “… you have to trust yourself and be confident, also trust your team member who is pulling the rope down.”

Then it’s her partner’s turn. Initially he’s just keen to get to the top before his mate, who hasn’t quite got the hang of it yet, forgetting to follow instructions about which colour hand-holds to grip in his haste, getting in a muddle and having to come back down again.

When everyone’s had a turn on the beginner’s wall it’s time to move through to the really big beasts – walls of up to 13.5m, including one with auto belays. These are huge, automatic spindle-like machines which automatically take up and control the rope slack for the climber. Even without the added height, this adds to the fear factor as it becomes even more important to follow the coming-down instructions to the letter.

All the young people have a go, shouting up encouragement to ‘just let go’, their excitement and laughter spurring each other on to conquer their fears.

By the end of the session they all gather round to plead with me to bring them again, fears now forgotten, replaced with a feeling of great achievement.

As one of the young women who had screamed her way to the top put it: “…Life goes on even if we fell. We need to climb to the top to see the view.”