Healing on the run - when home is not your safe place
Investing in psychosocial support for migrant and refugee families
A chance meeting with Angel
He approached the table curiously drawn by the many crayons, markers and paint kits displayed for his enticement. For today, however, these supplies will double as both art and therapy tools to help identify children who are vulnerable and in need of psychosocial support. The bruise on his face indicates that he is exactly the type of child the team is here to serve.
His jagged drawings, etched in red and yellow, signaled to Nadia Palencia, Forensic Psychologist with Mind Health Connect, that there was an issue to explore. After her conversation concluded he disclosed that he was bullied at school and physically assaulted by students in his class. His name is Angel, and he is a six-year-old migrant to Belize from neighboring Guatemala. While he shared that he is not sure why he was assaulted this is the experience of most primary-school aged children. Not being able to speak the language hinders his ability to assimilate and bond with his classmates making his adaptation to Belizean life even more challenging. These are the issues that migrant children and their families confront as they adjust to building a life in Belize.
A safe place to heal
“We’ve seen it all; they are battling with everything from domestic violence in the homes, anxiety and fear resulting from their illegal status and the persisting trauma resulting from previous incidents, in their countries of origins.”
Angel's story highlights the fact that migrating to safety often exposes them to other challenges they must be prepared to manage on their quest for security and personal development. One's resiliency and mental state is equally important on this journey.
Families can change addresses but if they don't also address the state of their mental health - the battle is only half won. It is detrimental to their progress and development to be physically safe and secured but to continue to struggle with their mind and emotions and adjusting to their new life.
UNICEF Belize, therefore, has invested in providing the Belize Amnesty Programme Migrant Hubs with the technical expertise of the trio of psychologists of Mind Health Connect. As a non-governmental organization that advocates for mental health and wellness, the team has been accompanying the hubs in the Belize, Stann Creek and Cayo districts.
Today they are at the last scheduled Hub taking place at the Belmopan Comprehensive High School grounds. Today’s toolkit includes play and color therapy to help children who may not be good at communicating with words, use games and drawings to express themselves.
The team explained that they have seen a myriad of issues in the clients that have accessed the services. Juliet Simmons, Psychologist with Mind Health Connect, has been to all the Hubs and explained that migrant families, like other families in society, also struggle with maintaining good mental health.
“ A woman came to our table because she saw us playing with the children. While they were processing her paperwork, she came over to inquire about what we were doing. In talking with her she disclosed that she was experiencing domestic violence and was afraid to go home. We referred her to the Women’s Department to get into a safe house.”
In one instance, a client accessed through the Hubs had to be moved to a safe house because of domestic violence in the home. Simmons revisits the case that led to a referral.
“Most families didn’t understand the concept of therapy. Culture keeps them isolated, and they are often shy to speak. But this is precisely why services needs to be innovative and go to them to ensure they have the support and comfort they need.”
The adults are slower to open up and talk about their problems; perhaps out of a lack of trust of the system or fear of being reported to Immigration. Nonetheless all agreed that this population is underserved and that more attention should be placed on assisting the migrant population to access psychosocial support for the traumas they have faced.
Leon Leslie is the Sports Psychologist with the Mind Health Connect Team. He shared that most families have never had the opportunity to receive counselling.
Investing in psychosocial support
“A document doesn’t make you less human. They are humans and have the same needs as the rest of us born in Belize. We ought to help them validate their feelings and find their healing.”
Children like Angel will get support and an introduction to counselling with an opportunity for follow-up. UNICEF has been able to reach these vulnerable families. Through the duration of the Amnesty period the Mind Health Connect team saw 851 clients and shared important information to help families and their children connect to further services to support their mental health and wellness has as they continue building lives in Belize.
Migrant and refugee families are often running from physical and psychological dangers in their home countries. While we open Belize as a safe have and a physical sanctuary to the displaced; we must also support the healing of their subconscious traumas that threaten their psychological safety -regardless of where they migrate to.
Ultimately, within the many migrant communities’ persons are integrating and starting families with other Belizeans, interjecting social norms, values and cultures into Belizean society. But this also means that they can perpetuate their traumas. If we help them to get the support they need our communities will have stronger families built on relationships that are healthy. It improves the quality of the homes in which children are reared.
This is a social investment UNICEF Belize is committed to making in the best interest of migrant and refugee children and the wider society.