Mental health is also important: You’re not alone
Since September 2020, Mahdieh is one of 63 women and girls that have attended psychosocial support workshops held by Info Park’s facilitators Aleksandra and Milica.
Vranje, Serbia, May 2021 - “We have big problems. We don't have a house; a normal life and we can’t see our future. I often cry because I’m worried about my children. However, I find my peace at the workshops organized in the centre, I don’t think about my problems, I feel good and useful,” says thirty-five-year-old Mahdieh, who has been staying at the Reception Centre in Vranje, in Southern Serbia, for two and a half years with her husband, eight-year-old son Saam and two-year-old daughter Selena.
The four years that she has been on the road, far from her country, family, and her career as an agricultural engineer, have left consequences on her physical and mental health. Unfortunately, other refugee and migrant families share her fate.
That is why UNICEF, through the Strengthening Refugee and Migrant Children’s Health Status in Southern and South-Eastern Europe project, supports Info Park, a non-governmental organization working in Reception Centre in Vranje. Info Park organizes workshops aimed at improving the health of women, girls, and children, especially in the areas of mental health protection and prevention of and response to gender-based violence.
Since September 2020, Mahdieh is one of 63 women and girls that have attended psychosocial support workshops held by Info Park’s facilitators Aleksandra and Milica. These educational and creative activities are always organized within the safe space for women and girls.
“Just today we talked about how to cope with stress. We also learn how to recognize violence. Now we know that it's not always physical and visible, that it can also be psychological. We often pick the topics we want to discuss ourselves. Men can't come to workshops, and I like it that way, because we wouldn't be able to speak freely in front of them,” Mahdieh explains.
COVID-19, health concerns and the consequences of the lockdown and the inability to leave the centre have also been discussed at the workshops.
“It was difficult and stressful for us during the pandemic. We weren't leaving our rooms. My husband and I immediately received the COVID-19 vaccine because we wanted to protect ourselves and others. We’re still monitoring the situation and being careful. Our children have received all the necessary vaccines. Due to the pandemic, Selena received only one vaccine with a slight delay,” says Mahdieh.
Milica and Aleksandra are also taking care of the physical health of the beneficiaries at the reception centre and referring them to dentists, ophthalmologists, and gynaecologists for regular check-ups. However, it seems that psychosocial and counselling support is sometimes more important.
“They are scared and confused. They suffer from anxiety, insomnia, nervousness, stress, lethargy. They’re often withdrawn, they don’t communicate much with others. We’re monitoring their behaviour, trying to reach them through conversation,” explains Milica, who has been working as a facilitator for four years now.
The aim of the workshops is to empower women and girls, through education and dissemination of information on gender-based violence, the importance of physical and mental health, early childhood development and breastfeeding, prevention of COVID-19, and constructive coping with stress. In addition to lectures and conversation, brochures with advice in several languages are also available to beneficiaries at the reception centre.
“We tell them to take care of themselves, that they have to know their rights, and tell them what mechanisms they have available to protect themselves from psychological and physical violence. Because they come from different cultures and want to go to Europe where the culture is completely different. That’s why we encourage them to talk about their problems and seek help if they need it. They have to know that they can do everything and that they don't have to be afraid,” says Milica.
Aleksandra Pantovic has been working for six years on projects helping refugees and migrants in Vranje. She has learned how to gain their trust and help them.
"Women at the centre most often complain about gender inequality in intimate relationships. That’s why providing information about gender-based violence and empowering women to be able to recognize it is of the utmost importance. We are establishing a relationship of trust with them so that, if they are at risk of violence, they can come to us for help, and we then refer them to the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration, the Centre for Social Work and a psychologist,” says Aleksandra.
Girls aged 10 to 17 also attend workshops. When they realized that they were in a safe space, they started sharing their dilemmas, problems, and fears with Milica and Aleksandra, but also with other women. They all started supporting each other.
“Beneficiaries noticed that one woman was suffering gender-based violence and supported and encouraged her to report the perpetrator. The Commissariat for Refugees and Migration and the Centre for Social Work acted and the woman was moved from the reception centre into a safe house, so it had an effect,” says Aleksandra and explains that they’re trying to make life easier for these women and girls.
“They tell us that they like the time spent with us because they can forget about their worries and family commitments and have the time for themselves. They even encourage one another to come. Uncertainty makes them stressed and depressed, so they need conversation and support. They also joke that during the time spent with us they laugh so much, that it's sometimes enough to last them for the entire week,” Aleksandra says with satisfaction. Milica is also satisfied with the attendance rates of the workshop.
“We can see the positive effect and results. This is reflected in the fact that women are coming regularly, both those aged over 50 and girls as young as 10,” says Milica.
These workshops also mean a lot to Mahdieh from the beginning of our story, because, as she says, they make her everyday life more bearable.
“I wish there were more of them, so that we can joke, talk, and at least for a while, relax and forget about our problems,” says Mahdieh.
UNICEF has been working with the Government of the Republic of Serbia and implementing partners since the start of the refugee and migrant crisis. Since the beginning of 2020, with the support and co-funding of the European Union Health Programme, UNICEF has been working to ensure the safety, health and overall well-being of refugee and migrant children and their parents. Mahdieh’s family, and many others like them, are also being supported in the areas of education, social protection, and health care.