Letters from the Field Phase is an opportunity for the 2015-17 Sauvé Fellows to share their takeaways from the residential phase of the Jeanne Sauvé Public Leadership Program and showcase their applicability in the field.
by Sauvé Fellow Maya Fennig
As a social worker and human rights activist working with refugee communities in Israel for over nine years, I have witnessed a lot of loss and hardship, but I have also seen the agency and aspirations of the people I work with. Recognizing the variety of feelings, experiences, skills and knowledge that these communities bring, a significant amount of my work has been geared towards creating spaces for refugees to be part of the conversation and influence the policies and services of which they are beneficiaries.
Acknowledging the voices of refugees may seem obvious to some, it is to me, but in a country that views refugees as “passive victims” suffering mental health problems, at best, and as a burden and a threat to society, at worst, this is not always the case.
Coming from this perspective, what I found particularly valuable about the residential phase of the Jeanne Sauvé Public Leadership Program was the group project in which we, the Public Leadership Fellows, collectively explored the issue of refugee integration in Montreal and Canada. Taking a holistic approach, we dove deeply into policy, education and health issues surrounding refugee integration. We also explored the psychological impacts of conflict, displacement, family separation and loss, and we looked at key mental health concerns for the refugee population in Canada and abroad.
These learnings have directly influenced my doctoral dissertation, which I began this year. After finishing the residential phase of the Program, I began my studies as a PhD student at the School of Social Work at McGill University, under the supervision of Professor Myriam Denov. Throughout my research and studies, I realized that despite extensive evidence confirming that refugees suffer from elevated rates of psychological distress, there is a paucity of knowledge regarding effective and appropriate interventions that can assist this population. This international problem is particularly evident in the Israeli context, in which only a limited number of studies have focused on the plight of refugees from Eritrea, one of the most suppressive dictatorships in the world and among the top source countries of refugees.
Recently, scholars have called for a specific enquiry into refugees’ social and cultural contexts, arguing that incorporating clients’ ethnic, linguistic, racial and cultural background into existing mental health interventions can dramatically increase their quality and accessibility. Recognizing the urgent need to develop more effective models of treatment, in my doctoral study, I am developing a novel framework geared towards modifying mental health interventions to Eritrean refugees’ sociocultural context. In contrast to previous cultural adaptation frameworks that have adopted a top-down approach, the proposed framework will be developed from the bottom-up, paying specific attention to the needs of Eritrean refugees — their experiences of loss and trauma and their unique ways of coping and seeking help. My hope is that this framework will assist social workers and clinicians, who are at the forefront of delivering services, to better help the millions of people caught up in this terrible crisis.
Helping refugees heal is an essential part of Canada’s humanitarian tradition. However, it is no easy feat. As I proceed in my professional journey, I feel confident that the toolbox I gained in the residential and field phase of the Sauvé Fellowship will enable me to pursue my passion for engaged scholarship while assisting Israel, Canada, and the international community, to fulfill the enormous challenge of improving refugees’ access to effective mental health care.