‘For some fleeing Ukraine, the trauma will never end’

Social work in emergencies expert Lena Dominelli discusses what support practitioners are offering in immediate response to the conflict and how those in the UK can help Ukrainians fleeing the fighting

Two Ukrainian child refugees in Poland
Credit: Pakkin Leung / Wikimedia Commons

Practitioners must recognise that some refugees fleeing Ukraine will be traumatised for the rest of their lives, a social work professor has warned.

But they have a key role to play in ensuring refugees fleeing to the UK feel welcome, which can mitigate the trauma they have gone through, says Lena Dominelli, chair of British Association of Social Workers’ ‘Social Work’s Place in Emergencies and Disasters’ special interest group.

Since the Russian government invaded Ukraine on 24 February, Dominelli has been in contact with practitioners on the front line.

She speaks twice a week to social workers in Ukraine, “in the bunkers during the night and during the day when the sirens sound”, to listen to their information and offer advice.

Social workers are helping people on the ground, from trying to reunite children and families, to providing practical aid like food, water, clothing, shelter where they can.”

Dominelli says social workers in Ukraine ask for advice on policies that have been implemented in other countries in response to disasters to help the social work response.

She says social workers will be involved from the current immediate relief process through recovery, when the military threat has ended, then onto the longer-term process of reconstruction of the country’s infrastructure.

How global social work is helping Ukraine

To support practitioners in Ukraine, Dominelli has helped to set up the Social Work for Peace network, which is asking for donations to purchase food, clothing, water, shelter, medicines, painkillers, oxygen and power generators, through various humanitarian organisations.

The network – based in Stirling, the university where Dominelli works – aims to help frontline practitioners refer people affected by the war to other services and assist those demanding an end to the war through their elected representatives.

It also pledges to prepare other countries to welcome Ukrainian refugees, assist those that have fled to settle down in their host country, secure scholarships for students from Ukraine, and recruit bilingual speakers who speak Ukrainian.

This is one of several actions global social work is taking to support those affected by Russian’s invasion.

The International Federation of Social Workers said last week it had co-ordinated professionals and communities across Europe in responding to the needs of refugees as they fled Ukraine as well as assisting people who remained in the country.

“These collective actions are unprecedented in the life of IFSW and show the growth and the strength of our development,” said Rory Truell, IFSW secretary-general.

UK refugee scheme

Social work organisations and others in the UK have urged the government to offer support to Ukraine refugees with Social Workers Without Borders calling for it to “enact [its] duty under the UN 1951 Convention to protect all refugees”.

The government responded to public pressure by announcing a scheme to house Ukrainian refugees this week, with no cap on numbers.

‘Homes for Ukraine’ will allow individuals, charities, community groups and businesses in the UK to offer those fleeing the conflict a place to stay with over 90,000 households expressing an interest in the first 24 hours.

The charity Refugees at Home is recruiting voluntary home visitors in London, including those with social work experience, to assess potential hosts and ensure placements are safe and suitable.

Making refugees feel welcome

Dominelli says a crucial part of social workers’ role in the UK is to ensure Ukrainian refugees arriving in the country feel welcome.

“We have to respond to their needs, make them feel very welcome and that they are not a burden to society, that actually society has a commitment to them and their wellbeing,” she says.

Social workers may have to think “creatively,” she says, about how to access the additional resources that Ukrainian refugees might need.

For instance, Dominelli says it is important for social workers to work with Ukrainian communities that are already in the UK. She has been talking to Ukrainian groups in Edinburgh about how she and others in Stirling can prepare.

And Dominelli says it is equally important to “educate” the public about the need to accept Ukrainian refugees positively, “because we know there will be people that welcome refugees with open arms but we also know there will be people who resist them”.

She says some people may have “legitimate worries” about struggling to feed their own family and might ask, ‘why are you telling me that you can give them something, but you are not giving me something?’.

She adds: “And I say it is not an either or: we can look after your needs and their needs too because we are one of the richest countries in the world.”

In terms of practical tips, Dominelli says it is worthwhile for social workers in the UK to learn some basic Ukrainian such as, ‘hello, how are you?’.

Dominelli’s father, a linguist, advised her that you only needed to learn 200 word to speak basically in a language.

Trauma can last for years

Dominelli says the longer-term support that Ukrainian victims of war will require will depend on each person – but some will be traumatised for many years, she warns.

“I know the (government) is being very optimistic and thinking three years but from the trauma side people may never get over it,” she says.

“They can survive where they are contributing to society, they are getting on raising their families, going to work, doing whatever they need to do, but they are not really happy, they don’t feel fulfilled because they are always getting flashbacks.”

Dominelli says the difference could be the extent to which Ukrainian refugees are welcomed into the UK to give them a sense of belonging.

“A lot of this has to do with the way they are accepted in their society, whether they feel they belong to that society even if it’s a new one that they are having to adjust and adapt to,” she says.

“If they can get those very fundamental human needs met, they are the ones who will go on to thrive.”

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3 Responses to ‘For some fleeing Ukraine, the trauma will never end’

  1. Tanya March 15, 2022 at 4:14 pm #

    I have a great deal of respect for Lena Dominelli, indeed I own some of her books. However I think her assertion that we should tell people being looked after is not an either or choice as we are a rich country doesn’t reflect the experiences of most people. If our country’s wealth was used for the common good we wouldn’t have the wealth divisions we already have. Why do people have to make choices between heating and eating? Why are people put through the ringer to get basic benefits? Why are people with significant disabilities refused PIP? Why is insecure and below minimum wage employment just accepted? The examples are many. We should welcome Ukranian refugees with all the love and care and practical and financial help their needs deserve. But pretending that inequalities do not blight the lives of many in our country already by reference to our national wealth, to my mind at least, is not credible.

  2. Andy March 16, 2022 at 8:00 am #

    I think it’s wonderful the way that the British people and the British government have responded so positively to the prospect of a sudden influx of large numbers of Ukrainian refugees. Perhaps Lena Dominelli could lead a special research project into the sudden, unusual and specific factors which have so radically and rapidly changed the attitude of the British public and the British government towards refugees in general over the past two or three weeks.

  3. Pauline Kewley-Robson March 29, 2022 at 7:57 pm #

    I am a social worker with experience of engaging with refugees within my family. I am a social worker (now working independently) having specialised in Mental Health, Children and Families, safeguarding etc.
    I am also a Psychotherapist working with depression and trauma and also a Clinical Hypnotherapist.
    My husband and I are looking to accept a refugee/s into our home but it seems that the local authority (North East of the UK) are having difficulty managing to organise the process i.e. finding and matching with refugees. I find the whole situation so frustrating when there are people wishing to find safety and peace.
    Do you know how we can link up with the refugees wishing to come to the area?