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A safe haven.

Wendy Wallace talked to staff and clients at a London-based centre for refugees where people from the Middle East make up about two thirds of all those seen.

Many organisations exist to help refugees with their material needs but the psychological needs of displaced people have often been neglected. The Refugee Support Centre in London has been established to offer emotional support to refugees and asylum seekers in Britain, two thirds of whom are from the Middle East and Africa.

"People have lost their relatives, their homes, everything that was precious to them", says Cheryl Monteith, director of the Centre. "They suffer from loneliness and isolation, and a massive sense of loss". Established in 1989, the Centre currently has 100 clients on its books, most of whom have weekly sessions with trained counsellors, working through interpreters where necessary.

The Centre's clients have fled political repression and wars in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia. Each one has his or her own story.

They may have been separated from their families, seen relatives killed or suffered years of fear or persecution.

Once in Britain, many are troubled by guilt for having survived where others did not, or for leaving behind members of their families. We know from the experience of concentration camp survivors in Hitler's Germany that this guilt is not easily thrown off. The Italian writer Primo Levi, a holocaust survivor, was haunted by the memory of that time and driven to suicide by it 40 years later. Life in the West, although probably safer, is not without its difficulties for refugees. They hear about the deportation of one young man back to his country, and the sudden death in prison of another. "That's the sort of thing refugees remember," says Cheryl Monteith. "They're frightened of the authorities at home, and they're frightened of the authorities here".

Added to such fears are the challenges of simply surviving in the West. "Some Muslim women have a difficult time adjusting," says Vicky Ross, a counsellor at the Centre. "Sometimes they're not used to going out alone, and they find expectations of them in this society are very different." Other refugees suffer racist attacks or abuse, or are accused of 'sponging' on the welfare state system. In fact financial problems are common, people in Britain awaiting decisions on their right to remain in the country only receive 90% of normal state benefits. Unless they have private wealth, which most do not, the money is barely enough to live on.

Family relationships often come under strain in exile. "A woman may be angry with her husband about his political activities," says counsellor Vicky Ross. "Or the balance of the relationship may change if the man finds himself without work, or the woman is unsupported by relatives."

Sometimes the children are the only ones in the family who speak the language, and have to take on exaggerated responsibilities. With such varied difficulties can counselling help? "I could not believe a year ago that I would feel alive again," said one former client. "I have discovered new resources in myself, and I feel alive again."

"It's a relief for people to unburden themselves," says Vicky Ross. "We take them seriously, and we can reassure them that their reactions are normal." Although refugees may be referred to the Centre by doctors or other agencies, the service is available to anybody who makes contact.

Men and women are seen in roughly equal numbers and most frequently aged between 19 and 45. Some clients need weekly counselling sessions for up to a year, others visit only once or twice.

Three trained counsellors on the staff are to be joined by a Farsi speaker and a Somali/Arabic speaker, cutting down on the need to use translators.

Staff at the centre are clear about their objectives. "We are trying to keep people out of hospital, and off drug therapy."
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Title Annotation:Mosaic; Refugee Support Center
Author:Wallace, Wendy
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Words:651
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