Launching Refugee Women’s Support Groups in Bangkok

“At night I can hear my heart breaking.” This comment came from a single mother in our Iranian Women’s Community Support Group, describing the grief she feels over the childhood that her son is missing while they await refugee status in Bangkok.

Urban asylum seekers in Bangkok have left trauma behind in their home country only to face renewed trauma, living in fear of arrest and detention and lingering in a state of limbo. Asylum seekers’ daily stresses, mounted on top of their already fragile condition, can lead to health problems and anger issues that affect families, with children often bearing the brunt of this.

To address this, Asylum Access Thailand has started offering facilitated support groups. Through our partnership with Dr. Ben Weinstein, a professor at Assumption University and a practitioner at Psychological Services International in Bangkok, a medical specialist helps us conduct these support groups with the highest level of integrity and professionalism. Our new Psychology Intern, Oratip Nimmkannon, is working closely with Dr. Weinstein to lead us in this.

At night I can hear my heart breaking.

We have had two sessions to date, one for Congolese women and one for Iranian women. I was able to attend the Iranian women’s group and was impressed with how much closer the women became in a few short hours. In the beginning, the group began with a few isolated women skeptical of one other, but by the end of the session, they were having conversations that lasted long after the session came to a close. The women were eager for the next session and requested to meet once a week. While the plan for the groups was to meet once a month, the women’s enthusiasm indicates a need for more frequent sessions.

The support groups are intended to help participants manage daily stress and Dr. Weinstein begins by asking participants about their biggest daily causes of stress. Most describe the frustration of waiting for appointments or results from the UNHCR, which can take many months. This uncertainty is a major source of ongoing stress. Other stressors include the worry of arrest and detention, the lack of educational opportunities for their children, and the unpleasant living conditions many of the participants endure. Single mothers caring for their children on their own, as well as married women trying to maintain family peace under trying conditions, are groups more susceptible to a great deal of daily stress.

“I have to hold my tongue when my husband is angry or he will get more angry at me and the children.” explained the mother of two young children.

A single mother described, “Sometimes I am lost in my head and my son will ask me something. He surprises me and I yell at him. It’s not his fault.”

Dr. Weinstein allows everyone to share their experiences and then encourages the group to come up with the coping skills that they already use so that participants can learn from each other. He describes the psychology of stress and the difference between internal and external stress, emphasizing that often, nothing can be done about external stress. However, much can be done about internal stress and he encourages participants to focus on managing this. The group offers various coping skills such as talking to someone, listening to music and praying. Dr. Weinstein also suggests free-flow writing exercises and breathing exercises.

Using analogies, Dr. Weinstein helps participants understand their feelings and how to cope with their stress. To illustrate the danger of anger, he quotes “The body is like a piece of wood, if there is fire, the wood will be burnt away. You must put out the fire inside.” With the support of professionals like Dr. Weinstein, Asylum Access Thailand is reaching out to dozens of refugee women and offering them a safe space to convene. Through regular meetings and the tools to cope with their difficult circumstances, our aim is to empower them to help one other and improve the way they deal with stress in their lives.

By Asylum Access Community Outreach Coordinator Sharonne Broadhead

Published June 2013