A week of a Yale psychologist in Austria with Ukrainian refugees

Nathan Schmidt didn’t know what to expect when he called New Haven psychologist Dr. Amit Oren in May.

Schmidt and his wife, Dana, had contacted Oren to find out if she was interested in helping organize a wellness retreat in Austria’s central Alps for families who had fled war in Ukraine.

In the first months, more than 5 million Ukrainian residents fled to Europe, according to the United Nations. Schmidt had helped families through his nonprofit organization The Mountain Seed Foundation, which he created in 2021 to help people in war-torn countries. The former Marine had decided to spend his life helping the people of Ukraine after serving at the US Embassy in Kyiv from 2015 to 2018, where he was inspired by the bravery of children living in the scarred eastern regions. by Russian-backed aggression.

He wanted to organize a mountaineering trip for these children in the summer, although the plan was originally set for 2023 before the invasion. After completing three combat tours in Iraq, Schmidt found that mountaineering gave him the resilience and a sense of peace needed to combat the trauma of war.

“In my personal journey of suffering from PTSD in conflict zones, the mountains were a way to heal,” he said.

The foundation got Oren’s name from a Ukrainian-American doctor at Yale. Oren is a clinical supervisor for Yale’s Department of Psychiatry and has had a private practice in New Haven for over thirty years helping patients with anxiety, depression and anger. Much to Schmidt’s surprise, she was immediately won over by the idea and was moved by her story.

“He said (on the phone), ‘I served three tours of duty in an unjust war as a Marine,’ Oren said. “He made me wage an ‘unjust war’,” she said.

“Creating Purpose and Meaning”

The idea would come to fruition in the first week of August 2022. Oren and the other 14 team members traveled to the mountainous village of Piesendorf, Austria. They planned the trip in 24 hours.

Oren was in contact with a group of Ukrainian therapists led by one of the country’s leading psychologists, Dr. Viktor Vus, who asked him to host a webinar to teach self-care to Ukrainian therapists.

The foundation’s director of programs, Iryna Prykhodko, used her vast network in Ukraine to bring together 35 mothers and children, all from areas directly affected by the conflict.

For most of the children, their fathers had been killed or were fighting on the front lines or hospitalized in Ukraine with serious injuries. All had escaped from Donetsk, Mariupol, Kharkiv or Bucha.

A woman escaped with her two children from Bucha, seeing dead bodies and burnt-out tanks on the side of the road as she drove out, according to Schmidt. Three boys had a brother fighting in Ukraine and had walked all day to escape the fighting in Mariupol. Another family escaped from Donetsk and lost a loved one in the conflict in March. Another family from Donetsk fled to Bucha for 30 days and witnessed the massacres.

“These kids had seen the conflict first-hand,” Schmidt said.

A residential building damaged by artillery in the rebel town of Pervomaisk in Luhansk Oblast in eastern Ukraine.

Maximilian_Clarke/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Oren remembers the families looking shaken when they got off the bus on the first day. They had their eyes and head lowered and avoided eye contact.

During the trip, with the help of a Ukrainian translator, Oren worked with the mothers and avoided using her traditional approach to PTSD, in which she immersed herself in their traumatic experiences. To begin this healing process in seven days would be like dismissing a patient in the middle of surgery, she said.

“Usually closing the surgical area takes longer than opening it. And you’re not going to see people jump off the table and run away with an open wound,” she said.

His program revolved around the components of PERMA+, a conceptualization of how to achieve a healthy sense of well-being, fulfillment and satisfaction in one’s life. These elements include the appreciation of beauty and connecting with another person, Oren said.

She took individual walks with the mothers around the scenic mountains and talked. Much to his fascination, they all wanted to discuss parenting, especially how to set boundaries and avoid controlling their preteen children.

They asked, “When do you stop focusing only on protection, and why? And when do you let go and let the kids try things out for themselves? When do you love a lot? And when do you start setting limits?” she said. “The same questions that all mothers ask themselves.”

In the morning, she would ask them to name their intention for the day and what they would like to accomplish. She also held workshops on how to live with long-term uncertainty and accept the current situation rather than wishing for something else. She would ask them to list their strengths and they would use it to navigate the journey ahead.

The aim was to bring children and mothers in tune with their emotions, which they are not used to.

“The Ukrainian approach to life, it seems, is that you resist. We can see it in the way they fight. But they are very reluctant to express their emotions, especially towards others towards foreigners “, she said.

Use a method created by Holocaust survivor Viktor FranklOren taught them to develop a sense of purpose from the horrors they witnessed.

“When you go through this kind of warfare, it’s easy to completely lose the sense of meaning,” Oren said. “These women, one of the things that I tried to foster for them, especially the ones that had some survivor guilt, was telling them, ‘Take that energy and help others make your point. Do something with a gift you received here, create purpose and meaning that will get you through it.'”

“I am your future”

While Oren had never known life as a Ukrainian refugee, her ancestors did 100 years ago.

In 1903, Oren’s maternal great-great-grandmother left Kyiv alone with her eight children and settled a mile from the Jordanian border in a small village in Israel, when he was not there were only 12 Jewish families, she said. The city was called Kfar Saba, and it is the city where Oren was born and raised.

Finally, 30 years later, after Hitler’s election in 1933, his father’s mother left Germany alone with her two sons. Oren’s father and brother fled to Israel, where his parents met.

On the first day of the retreat, Oren told this story to the mothers. She also told them about the life her resilient ancestors had made for themselves and for Oren, their great-great-granddaughter.

Oren went on to earn his Ph.D. in clinical psychology and built a career as a forensic psychologist, working in correctional facilities around the world before settling in New Haven.

“I am your future and I am the future of your children,” she told mothers. “I’m a clinical professor at Yale, I have children. I have love and I love. And I’m here to say this is what awaits you,” she told them.

“I felt like I was a representation of hope, being in my presence,” she said. “Because it’s their future. It’s just that when they go through all of this, it’s hard for them to imagine that it’s their future.”

Oren had always imagined the strangers who had graciously provided his ancestors with food and shelter during their travels.

“I wanted to be that stranger for these women, for these families to pay it forward,” she said.

“They have been transformed”

On the Thursday night of the trip, Schmidt was walking through one of the conference areas and was startled by what he saw through the crack in the door.

The mothers and children, who had only known each other for a few days, painted and smiled. Together they sang Ukrainian anthems of pride and joy.

At that moment, Schmidt turned to his wife. “I served in the army. But it might be the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life.

On the final day, participants presented volunteers with a painted 3-by-3-foot sunflower, the national flower of Ukraine. Each petal contained a thank you note and a painting.

“Everyone basically said, ‘Thank you for giving us a chance to help our children and giving us this opportunity to heal,'” he said.

Oren remembers when the mothers boarded the bus on the last day, having a clearer idea of ​​the road ahead and life after reaching their destination. Saying goodbye, one of them picked her up and twirled her around.

This has never happened to Oren before.

“You can imagine what these people went through, and the kind of heaviness and sadness they came with. And when they left, it was a whole different story. They were transformed,” she said. declared.

“A Silver Lining”

Months later, starting on November 3, the war in Ukraine has forced some 14 million people from their homes, with a UN official calling it ‘the fastest and largest displacement seen in decades’ .

Many families displaced on the August trip stayed in Europe and decided to continue therapy for their children, according to Schmidt.
He eventually wants to create a year-round program to help returned war fathers and children from other countries.

Although Oren doesn’t know how many mothers are pursuing therapy, they have all remained more open to research in the future.

“For many people, after the traumatic experience there is a kind of silver lining; there’s something they’ve gained from having suffered, whether it’s a better sense of who they are, or a better sense of what’s important in life, or a greater appreciation for what they have had before anything. We saw it in action with these women and children,” she said.

Oren saw the notes the women wrote the last night of the trip.

On the last night of the trip, all participants rode a gondola to a restaurant at the highest peak of 11,000 feet. Oren took the mothers to a separate room and asked them how they had risen and changed.

Here is what they wrote:

“I want to start a business.”

“I want to teach others what I have learned here and maybe
start something in the community where I’m going.

“I want to live – not just survive.”

“I came here feeling lost, empty and exhausted. And now I feel full.
And I want to move forward. »

“The support I’ve received here has given me renewed faith in humanity.”

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