UNHCR – In Poland, a Ukrainian psychologist helps her fellow refugees Donate

By Tarik Argaz in Warsaw, Poland | October 10, 2022

Ukrainian psychologist Inna Chapko (left) provides information on psychosocial services at a Blue Dot Hub in Warsaw. © UNHCR/Tarik Argaz

When Ukrainians were forced to flee in the days and weeks after the war began, every train heading west was jam-packed with anxious, exhausted and terrified civilians. Inna Chapko, a Ukrainian psychologist, was among them, leaving her home in the capital, Kyiv, weeks after the war began in February. “Leaving was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made,” she said.

During the long hours of travel in crowded train cars, Inna put her professional skills to good use. She improvised a game based on stress relief techniques that helped calm the minds of tired, hungry and frightened children. She gathered them together and showed them how to cross their arms and hug their shoulders, then breathe deeply through their noses while tapping rhythmically with their hands. As the children calmed down, the parents joined in too, and soon the screaming died down and the rumble of the train on the tracks was all that could be heard.

Once safe in Warsaw, Inna decided to use her expertise to help fellow Ukrainians who, like her, have suffered the trauma and hardship of displacement. Today, she works in one of Poland’s six Blue Dot hubs – refugee support centres, set up by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and UNICEF, the UN Fund for childhood. Hubs offer mental health services in addition to social support, legal aid, administrative support, referrals to specialized services and areas designed for children to play and relax.

“Almost one in 10 refugees approaching bluespots have questions about mental health and psychosocial services,” said Inna, who runs weekly stress relief sessions and grounding exercises for women, as well as individual counseling sessions and art therapy groups.

  • At a Blue Dot hub in Warsaw, Inna Chapko (second from left) regularly receives refugees interested in therapy sessions and seeking information on psychosocial services.

    At a Blue Dot hub in Warsaw, Inna Chapko (second from left) regularly receives refugees interested in therapy sessions and seeking information on psychosocial services. © UNHCR/Tarik Argaz

  • Inna provides information on referrals to psychosocial services in Polish health centres.

    Inna provides information on referrals to psychosocial services in Polish health centres. © UNHCR/Tarik Argaz

  • Inna demonstrates a

    Inna demonstrates a ‘butterfly hug’ as part of an anti-stress therapy session at the Blue Dot hub in Warsaw. © UNHCR/Tarik Argaz

  • Inna puts her expertise to good use in one of six Blue Dot hubs for Ukrainian refugees in Poland.

    Inna puts her expertise to good use in one of six Blue Dot hubs for Ukrainian refugees in Poland. © UNHCR/Tarik Argaz

At the Blue Dot hub, she met Natasha* who had fled the town of Irpin, outside Kyiv, in March, telling her children: “Two weeks and we’ll be back!” as she hastily closed the door to their apartment before running for cover between waves of artillery bombardment.

The 34-year-old has since been living in Poland, waiting for it to be safe enough to return home. Natasha had never left Ukraine before, or traveled without her husband, and as the months passed, the costs, challenges and responsibilities of raising two young sons alone in a foreign country weighed day by day.

Shortly after moving to Poland, Natasha learned of her aunt’s death in Ukraine, and the news pushed her to the brink, triggering overwhelming feelings of grief and anxiety – “She was like a second mother to me,” Natasha said – so she asked for help at a blue dot.

There, Inna listened to Natasha’s story and helped her manage her stress and emotions before guiding her through the different services available, as well as how to access those provided by the Polish healthcare system.

“No one is prepared for such experiences,” Inna said of the trauma Ukrainians have suffered over the past eight months, “but most refugees who go through stressful events don’t think to ask for help. . They continue to live with the “survival mentality” they developed in times of crisis, and their wounds only get worse. »

She continued: “There is a time to be strong and brave, and a time to settle down, relax and accept the need to turn negative thoughts, emotions and memories into something neutral or even positive. .” Speaking – and being heard – is a crucial first step.

Poland, unlike many other refugee-hosting countries around the world, has a well-established healthcare system, although people with mental health problems sometimes face difficulties in getting referrals to specialists. The role of Blue Dots is essential, but mainly as a first port of call for refugees in difficulty, helping them to access public services.

UNHCR is also working with other organizations and national mental health professionals to provide training and advice on specific groups of refugees, including survivors of violence, women and girls at risk and unaccompanied children. or separated.

Natasha said speaking with Inna was her first encounter with a mental health expert and it provided her with a vital lifeline as she tried to find her feet in a new country. “Our thoughts are with Ukraine,” she said, “but we need to make the most of our time here in Poland, to support ourselves.”

Since March, more than 36,400 Ukrainian refugees have received support at Poland’s six Blue Dot centers, but Inna said mental health professionals like her can do even more, including working to be more proactive. to reach more people in need. .

“At Blue Dot, we often have to take the first step,” she said, “and reach out to refugees who may need support, instead of waiting for them to approach us first.

*Name changed for protection purposes

About blue dots

The blue dots are support centers that bring together essential protection services and information for refugees fleeing war in Ukraine, with a particular focus on children and those most at risk. These include unaccompanied and separated children, people with disabilities, suspected cases of trafficking, survivors of sexual or gender-based violence, and refugees from the LGBTIQ+ community. Established by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund, in collaboration with local authorities and partners along key crossing points and transit routes, blue dots provide a safe space, support and referrals for health
care, education, psychosocial support and more. Read more

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