First Person: A first in psychological aid, for Ukraine refugees in Poland
Many of the millions of refugees forced to leave Ukraine because of the Russian invasion are traumatized and need mental health support. In one Polish transit site, volunteers like Aurang Zeb Khan, have been trained by the UN migration agency (IOM) to administer psychological first aid.
Mlyny is a small town in southeastern Poland, approximately eight kilometres from the border with Ukraine. The otherwise quiet village has become one of the main points of entry for the over two million people who have arrived in the country since the start of the war.
Ukrainians living abroad, third-country nationals, and local and international volunteers, have rushed to Mlyny, to provide whatever help they can. Among them is Aurang Zeb Khan, a master’s degree student who came to Poland at the start of the crisis.
Mr. Khan is helping at a transit site, a repurposed shopping centre which hosts mostly women and children, who stay for a few days, or even just a few hours, before resuming their journeys to Warsaw and other cities, in Poland and beyond.
“I came here to Poland on 4 March to help people fleeing the war in Ukraine, especially third-country nationals who don’t have Ukrainian passports, but whose lives were also upended by the conflict.
Third country nationals face additional challenges here. In the beginning we witnessed discrimination because they were not allowed free transportation, and other services.
So, we focused on helping them with transport from a reception point in the town of Mlyny, on the south-eastern border with Ukraine, to bring them to Warsaw Central Station, and from there to other countries in Europe.
We also connected them with families in Poland and Germany who wanted to host them and with other individuals wo offered help to transport them to their destinations. At the beginning of the war, most efforts to assist people fleeing the conflict were led by volunteers.
But despite these efforts, third country nationals struggled. I remember three guys from India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, who were staying at a train station because they didn’t have money to buy train tickets.
I’ve seen many others, some of them young people, who have had difficulties registering in their host countries.
Now we have an information desk in this transit centre where I work with two civil servants from the Polish Foreign Office, who provide help with asylum processes for those who need it, as well as other useful information.
‘Nobody expected this to happen in Europe’
The IOM training on psychological first aid is tailored to the experiences of refugees. For these people, everything happened in the spur of the moment. Nobody expected this to happen in Europe.
As volunteers we often face stressful situations. I’ve seen a lot of women and children crying every day. I remember I was at Warsaw Central Station once, and I saw someone crying very badly. I wanted to help her, but I didn’t know how.
During the training we learned how to approach people in need without causing further harm, by simply offering to listen and stand by their side.
The training also focuses on the volunteers’ health. We learn coping mechanisms and activities to distract ourselves. People like me have been working here non-stop for almost a month, and we often don’t take the time to think about our own mental and physical wellbeing.
This training has given me a lot of hope and confidence as a volunteer. It made me feel like we are not alone, that someone is building our capacity to do the job.
I think now I’ll be better equipped to lend a hand to people fleeing the war, even if they just might need someone to communicate with, who understands their needs, and can let them know that someone is standing by their side.”
Psychological First Aid in Poland
- Mr. Khan is one of 13 volunteers participating in a psychological first aid training organized by IOM.
Psychological first aid focuses on humane and supportive practical and emotional assistance to people who have been recently exposed to highly stressful events. “It’s about the principle of ‘do no harm’, so it’s very important to help volunteers to approach people without increasing their vulnerabilities,” says Heide Rieder, IOM Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) expert.
- Participants have come from the Netherlands, Mexico, Canada, Poland, and Pakistan. During the training, they learned about sensitive approaches to helping people based on gender, age, cultural-specific needs among others.
- IOM Poland continues assistance to people in need including essential items, information, counselling, and referral services. Learn more about IOM’s response here.