Mental health in times of war: lending a helping hand to people fleeing Ukraine – Poland

Mlyny, March 22, 2022 – Mlyny is a small town in southeastern Poland, about 8 kilometers from the border with Ukraine. The otherwise quiet village has become one of the main entry points for more than 1.9 million people who have arrived in the country since the start of the war.

In addition to Ukrainians and third-country nationals, local and international volunteers rushed to Mlyny to provide whatever help they could.

Among them is Aurang Zeb Khan, a master’s student who came to Poland at the start of the crisis.

A Pakistani national studying in Germany, Aurang works in a transit site run by local authorities, NGOs and volunteers. The site, a refurbished shopping mall, hosts mainly women and children who spend a few hours – or days – there before resuming their journey to Warsaw and other cities in Poland and beyond.

The hallways are packed with people lying on rollaway beds. People here are visibly battered and starving after a long journey to safety. But in addition to basic needs such as food and health, many of them also need psychosocial interventions.

Aurang is one of 13 volunteers taking part in a psychological first aid training organized by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The training is the first of many similar interventions to come, particularly crucial for people fleeing war whose homes and sense of normalcy have been turned to rubble in an instant.

“I came here to help Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians by arranging their transport and accommodation. I have seen people in very stressful situations. I remember that at the central station in Warsaw, I saw a woman crying; I wanted to help her, but I didn’t know how to approach her – I didn’t know how she would react.

Psychological first aid focuses on practical and emotional human assistance and support for people who have recently been exposed to very stressful events. “It’s about the ‘do no harm’ principle, so it’s very important to help volunteers approach people without increasing their vulnerabilities,” says Heide Rieder, Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) expert from the ‘IOM.

The group of interns testifies to the outpouring of support for the Ukrainian response. Participants come from the Netherlands, Mexico, Colombia, Canada, Poland and Pakistan. During the training, they learn about sensitive approaches to helping people based on gender, age, and culture-specific needs, among others. The participants and the trainer are seated in a circle inside a room used for children’s recreational activities. The walls are covered with drawings and messages of solidarity sent by other children around the world.

“Our goal is to ensure volunteers can help people connect with their own positive coping strategies, as well as help volunteers think about their own circumstances and how they can care for them. themselves before helping others,” says Rieder.

“I want to continue to help these people, and I think the training has given me new skills to do that, at least to give them company and make them feel like someone is there for them,” says Zeb Khan.

More than 3.3 million people have fled Ukraine to neighboring countries, including more than 2 million to Poland alone. IOM Poland continues to assist those in need, including by providing essential items, information, advice and referral services. Learn more about IOM’s response: IOM Response 2022.


*This activity is made possible with the support of the Government of Japan and the Council of Europe Development Bank, with additional support from CADENA who provided the training space.*