For a group of mental health professionals in California, watching the Syrian refugee crisis unfold on television was not an option.
“We were very, very concerned that there (was) a lot of need, and little available for professional services -- particularly mental health services,” says psychiatrist Dr. Saad Shakir.
Shakir yearned to do more, and he zeroed in on Jordan. Amman, the country’s capital, is on the front lines of the Syrian refugee crisis, with nearly 1.5 million refugees now living in the country. Many are suffering deeply, but there aren’t nearly enough mental health professionals to serve them. A study from the World Health Organization says fewer than 100 psychiatrists live in Jordan.
In the face of overwhelming need came a creative response from the Alalusi Foundation, a Hayward-based nonprofit focusing on refugee relief and humanitarian projects around the world. The foundation developed the Care Program for Refugees -- or CPR -- to train professionals who work with refugees to provide mental health care.
“Being a physician, I'm a humanitarian,” says Shakir. “So seeing all the devastation going on, it's like I want to have an impact in a positive way. We decided the best way we can help is by training the individuals here who provide care for refugees.”
Earlier this summer, the group traveled to Amman to hold a weeklong training for Middle Eastern professionals who work with refugees.
Shakir and his colleagues prepared intensive trainings on a range of subjects including post-traumatic stress disorder, therapeutic interventions, ethics, and self-care for therapists.
Saadia Hameed is a school psychologist from Sunnyvale who first heard about CPR after a meeting of the Bay Area Muslim Mental Health Professionals. The group was looking for someone with a background working with children, and she jumped at the chance to get involved.
“It’s really important for someone who does want to help to look within themselves to see what skills they have to offer,” says Hameed, while on a break from leading a workshop for 30 people on caring for children who have experienced trauma. The room buzzes with energy, and the discussion alternates between English and Arabic.
The workshop is intended for medical professionals, as well as social workers, volunteers, and educators. One of the attendees, Nisreen Katbi is a displaced refugee herself. Now she runs a residential rehabilitation center in Amman called Souriyat Across Borders that cares for Syrian refugees who were injured in the war.
“We found ourselves, all of a sudden, in the middle of this crisis," she says. "Those people around us need help, they need help very quickly." Because of limited resources, people like Katbi sometimes find themselves given large responsibilities. She is grateful for today’s training.
“It’s a critical situation when they came from a war zone,” Katbi says. “So I have to be qualified to deal with them.”
The problem is vast. Care Program for Refugees hopes to expand its efforts by holding more trainings and offering webinars to reach other people who work with refugees. And Hameed, the school psychologist, says working with professionals like Katbi has in turn inspired her to dig deeper into treating trauma.
“One thing I feel is very motivated," she says. "I want to learn more about how to support children who’ve not just faced trauma but war trauma, and torture and grief and loss."
Hameed plans to return to Amman for next spring’s training.
Luisa Conlon and Hanna Miller contributed to this story.