Working in the trenches: the Work That Reconnects in the refugee reception context of Greece

by Tina Lygdopoulou

“We never notice them [the flowers]. But children do.” ~A group participant commenting on what it means to see with new eyes.

Refugee reception, the humanitarian field and trauma

Instead of support, the camp offered dehumanization and perpetuation of and exposure to further trauma.

Last year I worked briefly as the child protection manager for an humanitarian organisation in the context of one of the largest refugee reception centres in Greece. A space with no running water, exposed to weather from the sea on two sides, tents pitched on rubble and bare earth, with the only public spaces consisting of a handful of larger tents and the dirt roads frequented by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) vehicles, bulldozers and police cars. A place of desolation, with refugees lacking access to both water and food, adequate healthcare, and hygiene utilities, as well as being exposed to ongoing harassment and abuse coming from within and without the camp. Instead of support, the camp offered dehumanization and perpetuation of and exposure to further trauma.

Working crazy hours at the time, I was worried about the staff, who showed symptoms of burnout and even spoke openly about it. A group of 20, comprised of case workers, psychologists and interpreters. The latter had recently acquired refugee status and thus were still standing between two realities – the one of the camps and the other of “regular” life. All staff members were exposed to primary and secondary trauma or both and within this context, my main concern was how to best serve their needs. Having started to work for the particular organisation a month earlier, I decided to focus on vicarious trauma and thus turned to the Work that Reconnects as a methodology of intervention and support.

I was wondering at the time whether this approach could be relevant to humanitarian organisations at all. I decided that it was. Dreaming the world into being and being dreamed by the world is a simultaneous process. Refugee camps constitute both internal and external realities. Hence, staff working within the refugee context while witnessing despair around them become, in time, part of the desperation reproducing itself. In fact, they become the refugee camp, the bare earth, the authorities, the refugees themselves, the  NGOs. They become the place hosting (willingly or not) the camps, the country, the world, the seagulls flying over the sea of tents and the sea of waves. To be able to understand this is paramount.

The Work that Reconnects considers coming into dialogue with the pain as an essential process in order to move forward, but what do you do with the staff who are currently in pain? This was not “just” a situation related to the content of their work or their role, but something far more relevant to both EU and Greek politics of asylum seeker reception conditions. These complicated political and social conditions in refugee reception in Greece gave no space for hope and provided no visible reassurance that the situation could actually change.

Refugee reception policies in Greece and Europe in general have been increasingly hostile or characterised by what has been termed a form of “malicious abandonment.” See for instance the pushbacks carried out in the Aegean Sea by the Greek coast guard and the role of FRONTEX (the European Border and Coast Guard Agency – for instance: or the living conditions of refugees between the borders of different countries. Trauma was present and hence, recognising it and choosing to stay with it while allowing ourselves to see the bigger picture would perhaps allow group members to move beyond the desolation experienced due to field circumstances. In order to proceed, I knew I had to be very careful not to trigger a traumatic incident or move faster than the group would be willing to move, taking also into account that group members had access to varying degrees of privilege due to social class, “race”, gender, role within the organisation, experience, degrees of access to local context, psychological and/or spiritual rank. I needed to tread lightly.

Introduction of alternative methodologies within the humanitarian context

What I did not take into account as such was the politics within the organisation and the underlying realities shaping the work of NGOs in general. Almost all humanitarian NGOs, especially the ones present in the international scene, give priority  to the standardisation of their work and are expecting the same of the smaller groups they fund. In their attempt to ensure quality, the latter becomes an issue of quantity, which is a paradox in itself. While big NGOs – both international and national – offer a variety of seminars, these are almost always of monologic character and primarily revolve around the use of powerpoints. Thus, their content is–more often than not–constricted to a mainstream introduction of a larger topic (take as an example the notion of “survival sex”) instead of actual skills, regardless of participants’ previous experience and seniority or even local context.

At the same time, such approaches to learning and methodologies of teaching do not just reflect a tendency for standardisation or lack of awareness of what is relevant to local context. They also serve to make explicit the humanitarian worker’s passive position in the learning process/work context. As humanitarian NGOs give priority to protocols and so-called standards, there is little space for alternative approaches. Accompanied by a multitude of acronyms and regardless of intentions, work in the humanitarian sector becomes an issue of statistics, where the main concern is not as much the actual qualitative impact of interventions attempted or taking place, but rather donor satisfaction and reporting numbers (money spent and persons “benefited”). As such, working within this context often results in feelings of senselessness and fragmentation.

There is of course a good reason for all the bureaucracy and statistical approach of – I would dare say – life itself: they call it emergency intervention or as the field coordinator of a prestigious European humanitarian organisation once told me “we are like the army; when we give an order it has to be followed without questions.” Still, emergencies should never be an excuse for internal inertia or linear understandings of psychosocial interventions, but instead motivate everyone involved towards creativity and increased empathy.

In this context, any attempt to introduce an alternative approach to learning that emphasises group processes and human relationships may be seen as a threat. And that has been my personal experience as well. Soon after I  implemented the Work That Reconnects, I was requested to stick to 2-hour powerpoint meetings, remind staff their position and ensure that I keep precise minutes of who said what. Discussion was possible, but the agenda was to be pre-discussed and predetermined by/ with the manager.

So what is one to do, if one wishes to introduce alternative approaches to human (and non-human) pain into mainstream organisations? There are 3 options available:

  • Getting support from someone higher is one option, especially if you are working within the same organisation and you do not wish to jeopardise your employment. As we would do with the introduction of any new methodology, preparing the ground is crucial. Those of us who farm or garden know that you need to work on the soil before you sow your seeds.
  • Another way to suggest something new is from the position of an expert. An outsider who is selected precisely for the particular approach and hence has the support of key persons (i.e. those in power).
  • Still, sometimes time may be a luxury you don’t have as you worry deeply about your coworkers and by extension the people they are working with. As I like gardens, I would name this a guerilla gardening tactic. You do what you can with the resources you have and you hope for the best, wishing for good weather and resilient seeds.

Regardless of the option you choose, you need to ensure that staff knows what to expect in terms of content, especially if you are in a position of rank. For instance, does staff know what an experiential approach to training is? And how do you invite them in such a process? Contrary to seminars where participants choose to come to you, if you are introducing something different while enjoying the privilege of higher hierarchical status, you need to get consent. Actual consent.

Applying the Work That Reconnects and group process

Consent and trust are interrelated but not identical. As I was new in the organisation, I had to allow myself to be known and be tested as to whether I am worthy of the staff’s attention instead of imposing my “expertise”. That meant some kind of symbolic “death-walk” in Castaneda’s terms. In order to do this, I asked participants to work in subgroups and make a list of questions – personal or professional – they would like to ask me. These were indicative of their intentions and wisdom. Some were directly personal, others had to do with my professional background and expertise, but most were clearly meant to test my awareness and sense of rank, as in “do you think your cultural background and your personal beliefs could influence your performance in the field?” or “would you ever consider resigning in order to protect your values?”.

From there, we started discussing and working on what we knew and felt. I knew that pain had to be approached with sincerity, respect and tenderness. I also knew that pain may offer a pathway out of situations that seem clogged and desperate. Moving slowly from one exercise to another, I witnessed how each step brought us closer to an awareness interrelated with a sense of community. During the gratitude step, participants stated “it is interesting how awareness can be part of the job and actually integral to the job” or “gratitude takes you outside the concept of victimisation” – all important realisations for their work with refugees.

Touching pain was not easy. Even the attempt to discuss it was painful in its own right, or as someone mentioned “if we went on, I wouldn’t bear it any longer”. In this sense, offering alternative ways of dealing with pain in the here and now was of great importance, keeping in mind that the intention is not to apply everything at once, but to offer what the group needs to know. Including ways of settling the body was part of the introduction to pain, as it allowed for self-care and agency: what do you do when you feel like freezing, in pain, like dashing out of the room? While honoring pain, difficult stories arose that included self-harm, death/ loss, rape and torture. Self-gratitude supported the staff in getting appreciation for what they do, while practices of settling the body became important, since average approaches of clinical supervision do not usually include an embodied aspect of the self, but rather tend to focus on cognitive aspects of lived experience.

Going through the “four voices” stages, participants could choose a situation related to work (the wider social field, not just the camp), while trying the different voices. I offered three additional questions in order to render the exercise context-specific. This was when difficulties within the field became apparent, as we reflected on how the humanitarian context operates. Despite the detailed explanations I gave to participants, some voices were stubbornly left out or ignored with few exceptions: the future generation and the non-human. Reasons given by group members included: “we projected a need for practicality”, “we are realising our perception is limited”, “we have lost a long-term understanding of the field”, “I feel disconnected–what I do from who I am”.

It became apparent how difficult it is to imagine Other voices when those in the field are caught up in the wider social processes. A non-human voice may seem unrelated to someone solely engaged in the field of social justice or the future may not seem part of an emergency response. At the same time it was obvious that these Others may see what organisations and their staff do not see. Children  can see the flowers among the rubble in the camp and relate with or cling on to them for hope.

Hope became a central issue. Staff had been discussing how NGOs are part of the system in a capitalist society that does not allow for co-existent realities to emerge, and they were being forced to choose between “this” and “that”. They wondered if what they do is meaningful, stating they are trying their best. They remained aware that “NGOs accept the unacceptable” (working within the system) and felt powerless. In this moment of despair, the only non-human voice that emerged was an invited black cat. What would it have to say about all this? They replied: “The cat is watching. The cat sees what is really going on. The cat, contrary to humans, sees no differences among cats. That’s the lesson. The cat is just the cat. The cat says “I’m hungry”. The black cat has historically been a symbol of general strike.” We concluded the conversation with those two remarks – the need for self-care and solidarity in struggle.

After completing a 6-hours session, a member of the staff mentioned “I felt totally lost, that was too deep and I have not been used in working this way, so this was sometimes stressful, but I guess we can learn gradually how to enter this kind of depth” and “a lot of positive things happened and I didn’t expect it”. They stressed the importance of seeing each other outside the camp context, in their embodied dimensions as opposed to their digital ones (due to covid restrictions at the time). They felt safe and protected while there was no pressure of time and space. Finally, another one added “perhaps the next time interpreters can present something of their cultures”. The latter implied the “minority” (not in terms of numbers, but equal access to rights) taking an active stand, wishing to co-shape the trainings. I considered this an important moment.

In the months following the application of the Work That Reconnects, and after any option of experiential work had been banned as time consuming or irrelevant, the work we did became part of the staff’s demands towards the administration being considered as one of their rights.

This article was first published in Deep Times: A Journal of the Work That Reconnects