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Meet the Ukrainian Refugee Psychologists Providing Mental Health Care To Their Peers

This article is presented in partnership with Project HOPE

Project HOPE is a global health and humanitarian organization, working side-by-side with local health workers and communities to save lives and improve the health and well-being of people around the world.

Learn more about Project HOPE

A white woman with light blond hair holds a triangle over her heart. Behind her, a wall mural reads "no war."

Once refugees tend to their immediate needs of food, water, shelter, and safety, it is paramount that they have access to psychological support. 

As the war in Ukraine rages on, folks displaced by the conflict are in desperate need of mental health care — not only for their survival and day-to-day health and well-being — but to mitigate and cope with the long-term effects of violence and war on the brain and body.

In Poland, the Zustricz Foundation has been formally and informally supporting Ukrainians since 2014, helping refugees and migrants integrate into Polish society and adapt to a new environment with psychological consultations, language lessons, meetings with specialists, activities for children, and more.

Upon the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the organization immediately pivoted to provide aid and establish individual and group psychological support.

A white woman with light blond hair holds a triangle over her heart. Behind her, a wall mural reads "no war."
Ilena, a Ukrainian refugee at Wolno Nam. Project HOPE's partner, Zustricz Foundation, sends a psychologist to the shelter each week for one-on-one therapy sessions with residents. Photo courtesy of Marie Arago/Project HOPE

In just days of the invasion, they worked with partner organizations to establish a 24/7 Support Point in Krakow and quickly organized specialists to provide psychological support to refugees.

“They also agreed then how to help the helpers,” Nazik Salih, a regional information officer with Project HOPE who works with the Zustricz Foundation in Poland, said. “They trained, supervised, carried out group interviews, and provided individual support. Quick communication channels were created for groups of psychologists.” 

It was in September of 2022 that these channels widened and the organization opened its Psychological Support Center, providing employment for 22 psychologists, the majority of whom are refugees themselves.

Poland’s Psychological Support Center

The Psychological Support Center is a hub for, well, psychological support. A Ukrainian women-run operation, the center provides individual and group therapy sessions to demographics such as women, children, teens, soldiers’ wives, and people with disabilities, integrating practices like art therapy and language classes. 

A therapist helps three women at a table with a craft. On the table, there is yarn, beads, and feathers.
A group of Ukrainian women learn to make mandalas at the Zustricz Foundation. Photo courtesy of Maria Arago/Project HOPE

This work also extends to 28 mobile sites, where psychologists visit communities where refugees live for one-on-one support. 

“The majority of Ukrainian refugees need some level of mental health and psycho-social support, having endured stressful and traumatic experiences before leaving Ukraine and throughout their desperate journey into neighboring countries,” Salih told Good Good Good.

“This unprecedented, massive movement of women and children raises serious concerns on their heightened vulnerabilities to human trafficking and various forms of abuse. Therefore, good quality mental health and psycho-social support tailored to refugees is critical to the emergency response effort.” 

Project HOPE has helped fund the employment of Zustricz psychologists and the implementation of its many programs. After all, who better to take care of the mental health of refugees than other refugee psychologists who have been in their place? 

Two women sit over a table, working on a painting project.
A painting workshop at the Zustricz Foundation in Krakow. Photo courtesy of Marie Arago/Project HOPE

“These are highly qualified specialists who were forced to leave their homes and jobs. For these psychologists, their work is not just a job — it's a calling. It's an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of their fellow Ukrainians during a time of suffering,” Salih said. 

“This is their contribution to bringing the victory closer. This work also helps psychologists preserve their own mental health and well-being, reminding them of the power of human connection and the resilience of the human spirit.”

Not only are these Ukrainian psychologists bringing support and safety to their peers in Poland, but they get to maintain a level of normalcy, accessing professional development and financial stability in a time of unfathomable upheaval.

11 women from the Zustricz Foundation stand in formation for a photo.
Zustricz Foundation mental health workers. Photo courtesy of Maria Arago/Project HOPE

“I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be in this profession, to grow and develop, and to help people,” Eugenia, a refugee psychologist who arrived in Poland with her son in 2022, shared in a Project HOPE blog post.

“After feeling safe, being in my profession is the most important support for me in such a difficult time. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be useful, to feel alive and stable among my own, and for my own.”

Article Details

July 27, 2023 7:05 AM
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