Therapy with refugees

Marcia Gamsu has been volunteering as a therapists with our Minds Together project for the past six months. This project is run jointly with the Refugee Council. Here she gives her thoughts on this rewarding


Being Jewish, it seems obvious to me that the plight of refugees should be close to our hearts. But it’s just about being Jewish. If we think about our needs as human beings – for food, shelter, to belong and be part of communities, to be able to lead purposeful lives – then refugees seeking asylum are lacking some or all of these. Their very ability to exist, and certainly to exist in any kind of meaningful way, is under threat. As human beings we should care about this.

Over the last six months I’ve been working as a volunteer counsellor at the Refugee Council in their Safer Refugee Women Project. I’ve worked with women who’ve escaped from domestic slavery, female genital mutilation, forced marriages, threats to their life because of their sexuality. One woman has status but until the Refugee Council found her accommodation in a long stay hostel was in a very precarious position with her housing People don’t just jump from having status to being in a position where they can afford to rent and social housing, in particular for young people, is hard to come by and precarious.

The other clients I’ve worked with have had their asylum application refused and have either been in the process of appealing this or have been unable to do so. Percentages of applicants granted status do vary depending on the country of origin, but overall a majority are refused at first application. Solicitors usually require fresh evidence in order to take on appeal cases and this can be difficult to obtain. The asylum system is adversarial and it’s really tough being cross examined on the most traumatic events in your life, especially when your whole future rides on how coherent a narrative you can provide. The tribunals generally say they don’t believe the refugee.

When I first started working at the Refugee Council I wasn’t sure what use therapy was going to be in circumstances when practical needs are threatened and there is so much uncertainty about the future. But I’ve changed my mind. A couple of weeks ago I attended a conference entitled Improving mental health support for asylum seekers and refugees. Different views were expressed about treating refugees’ distress – many using traditional mental health diagnosis such as PTSD and offering cognitive behavioural therapy. Others viewed distress more contextually and focussed on working with the overall person: nurturing clients’ resourcefulness, strengthening their identity and highlighting and fostering their psychological resistance to oppression. This latter approach has been more in line with my way of working at the Refugee Council. Having encountered numerous obstacles and hostility, refugees don’t see themselves in a particularly positive light and it’s important to challenge this, pointing to their courage in opposing an unjust system and seeking a life elsewhere.

Personally, I’ve found it fascinating talking to clients about how their old ways of viewing life have been challenged and to think about the new meanings they’re forging.

The most significant thing that I can do though is to take my clients seriously as human beings: listen to their experiences, believe them and be interested in them. This is really important when there have been many assaults on people’s dignity both in their home and country and here. These are people who are have the courage and strength to survive things that would break many of us. They deserve our upmost respect.

If you are or know of a therapist who would like to volunteer with this project please see or email us on