Emotional agility training for Syrian women refugees

Article initially published by Ghada Alsharif, The Daily Star, 12 July 2019. 

MAKSEH, Lebanon: Sahar Hamzeh, a 39-year-old Syrian refugee and mother, moved to Lebanon with her five children eight years ago after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. She takes care of her children and pays the bills.

She also lives with the anxiety of not being able to pay rent, and of living paycheck to paycheck.“I have no one to talk to about these problems and no ways to cope. I am always tense. I keep it inside and it has affected my relationship with my children and my husband,” said Hamzeh, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.

Hamzeh is not the only Syrian refugee and mother who feels alone with her worries.

She was one of 60 Syrian women refugees who attended an “emotional agility” training workshop this week that mainly aimed to empower them by building their capacity to face setbacks, deal with stress, manage negative feelings and cope with difficulties.

The training was organized by UNESCO Beirut as part of a holistic educational initiative that aims to improve the participation and completion rates of basic education for Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

The women who attended the workshop were mothers of children in two new UNESCO schools opened in January.

The idea is that mothers who receive psychosocial support and equipped with the tools to cope with stress and other pressures will have better emotional tools to engage with their children.

“In 2018 UNESCO did an assessment on the needs of the Syrian community around the schools and noticed that Syrian mothers are facing a lot of challenges and have high levels of stress,” said Maysoun Chehab, UNESCO’s regional basic education officer.

Access to mental health care and psychosocial support is extremely limited in Syrian refugee communities. As a whole, mental health care services in Lebanon are predominantly provided by the private sector, which means that such services are not easily affordable for the average-income person.

The training this week was led by positive psychology coach Milad Hadchiti in a classroom of the UNESCO school in Makseh.

He began the session by asking the women to identify what causes them stress and the negative ways they might cope with it.

“We might not be able to change the issue, but we can show you how to deal with it,” Hadchiti explained to the audience.

Hadchiti, who has previously worked with refugees before using positive psychology intervention techniques, explained to the women coping techniques such as taking time to walk in nature and talking to a confidante.

He also highlighted mindfulness, a technique many of the women had not heard about.

“The easiest way to relieve stress is to breathe,” Hadchiti said.

In an activity, he showed the mothers how to focus on their breath to calm racing thoughts and heart rates, and to be present and not worry about things that have yet to happen.

The strategy, Hadchiti told The Daily Star, allows participants to acknowledge growth that can result from trauma and adversity.

For example, Hadchiti said that throughout the three-day training, some women were able to look at the challenges of paying bills as a reflection of their managerial strength, which shifted their perspective on how to look at the ability to pay the bills in the future.

“The approach that we use focuses on the participants’ strengths and what they learned and how they grew from the trauma they faced. It changes the participants perspective of the trauma,” Hadchiti said.

“Women don’t often have this opportunity to share these emotions, maybe due to culture and upbringing. Lots of mothers feel they don’t have anyone to share their story with. They feel alone and like they have no support. What we’re giving them are practical, ready-to-use, easy tips that could have a positive impact,” Hadchiti said. The training left the participants hopeful.

“I never shared these worries before. I never knew that I could feel better just by breathing,” said Aya Khoury, whose name has also been changed.

“What else can you do but try something new, look forward and have hope?” Hamzeh added.