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Experiences from a week at the Helen Bamber Foundation (HBF)

Written by: Mai Sharoni and Ida Skar Hi there! We were lucky to experience one week of practice at the Helen Bamber Foundation (HBF) in London. HBF works with refugees that have experienced human rights violations. We got to see how they work at HBF, and here we will tell you about some of our experiences.

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What is the Helen Bamber Foundation, you might wonder? HBF was founded in 2005 by Helen Bamber. She has been an advocate for human rights since the world war II, and the organization is following in her footsteps. The actress Emma Thompson is the chairman at HBF today, while the organization itself is run by some employees and a lot of volunteers. Maybe this is the reason why the people at HBF manage to do as much as they do, despite being a little organization. The fact that the organization is small surprised us, we imagined HBF to be a bit like St.Olavs Hospital in Trondheim, but the whole clinic is located on one floor, in an alley in Camden. We spent most of our time trying to figure out what they do at HBF. It might sound easy, but it actually took us a week to get an overview of all the different staff and their roles and tasks. At HBF they work in multidisciplinary teams with each client, with a holistic approach to treatment. This differentiates HBF from other places we have been to before, especially because they organize so many volunteers in this process. It was inspiring to meet so many people working to help others meet their basic needs. We went to several multidisciplinary meetings, and we got to see how each client has contact with social workers, lawyers, assistants and psychologists.

For the most part, the psychologists at HBF work with trauma, and often what they called «complex» PTSD. The client group has often been exposed to several traumatic events, and this is processed in psychotherapy. At HBF they explained trauma with the metaphor of an overstuffed cupboard: if you shove a lot of things into the cupboard at the same time it will be full, messy, and it can be difficult to close the cupboard. Everything can fall out at once. Working through trauma is a bit similar to taking everything from the cupboard out again, folding it properly, and then putting it back in the cupboard.

This process can be overwhelming, and the client can dissociate while reliving the trauma. The psychologists showed us how they can prevent dissociation through grounding techniques, and a shoebox with sparkling paper contained the necessary equipment. The box contained everything from etheric oils, chocolate, and those rolls of round, white mints they have a lot of in Britain. At HBF they use Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET) as one way to work through the different memories and flashbacks. Here, a string of yarn symbolizes your lifeline, and then you attach flowers for nice memories and stones for the painful ones. Together you talk through every stone and flower. It’s been exciting for us to see how psychological theories can be applied to therapy. We didn’t get to join any therapeutic meetings, because it is a very vulnerable group of patients. However, we did read and hear about many cases that made a strong impact on us. It is one thing to see statistics of rape, torture or female genital mutilation (FGM), but it feels completely different when you hear about it from one person´s narrative.

If you lack the most basic needs, if you don’t have a bed to sleep in, then there is no point in initiating psychotherapy. Because of this, HBF works to accommodate each client, and they can help the client to a safe place to live, to make sure the client has food, to help the client with paperwork (which for the client can be in a foreign language, in a foreign system), initiating psychoeducation and arranging different leisure activities. We joined both a yoga class and an art class, and it was inspiring to see how many parts of the human being that was accounted and cared for in treatment. This applies to the staff as well. In the hallway, at the toilets, and in the office there was notes on the walls with sayings like «You can’t pour from an empty cup». In the offices we saw scented candles and flowers, which gave a more relaxed atmosphere than in a «regular» institution. Everyone there took some time off for a biscuit and tea and chatter before they had to run off to the next meeting. It gave a nice contrast to the heavy work they do there.

We spent a lot of time reading about trafficking. We learned that refugees are in a vulnerable situation, and there is sadly a great risk of them being victims of trafficking. Trafficking is more than prostitution, and the jobs one can be forced to take on, surprised me. We read stories where people were forced to sell DVDs or trinkets, to work in a massage studio, or work as a maid. Some people are not allowed to go out, they cannot decide what to eat, what to do, get very little or nothing paid, and is often told that one needs to pay a debt (that doesn’t exist). Trafficking is often difficult to discover, and the victims can be reluctant to talk about it. Both because they could have experienced very traumatic events, but also because the person is threatened that its family will get hurt, killed or bewitched if they tell anybody about the trafficking. A part of the work at HBF is therefore dedicated to disclosing if the client has been a victim of trafficking, as people not always know if they have been experiencing something illegal. It has been a wakeup-call for us to hear about how extreme cruelty can be committed to humans. It has been nice to also see how many ways one can make a difference to others, that there is hope, that there is help. For example, the volunteers follow clients to court, to give mental support. We are first and foremost fellow human beings, that can support each other in all our own ways. Being a week at HBF have given us faith in that we are studying something important. HBF is a small center with a lot of strength, both in its clients, staff and volunteers. The work they do there has been of great inspiration for us. This week truly changed our view on how life in 2018 can be.

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