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Understanding Trauma as Experienced by Refugees and Asylum Seekers

‘Trauma refers to the way that some distressing events are so extreme or intense that they overwhelm a person’s ability to cope, resulting in lasting negative impact’. (UK Trauma Council) The experiences of refugees and asylum seekers of course tend to fit this definition. Therefore, as an organisation which connects refugees to online volunteer teachers, we feel it is very important for these volunteers to have a bit of an understanding of trauma. This article should provide an overview for those who are not already familiar with this phenomenon.

There are many ways in which those who have experienced trauma may behave as a result. One is ‘dissociation’ – the shock of an event causes the mind and body to freeze, with no real sense of fear, but rather absent-mindedness. At the other end of the spectrum is ‘the go quick, fight-or-flight mode’, with symptoms such as a racing mind, anxiety, and rage, all of which are very physically and mentally draining. There are many other effects of trauma, and people can even react very differently to the same event. (Haines, 2016)

Experiencing trauma as a child can have particularly negative effects, because the distressing event will impact the way in which the young person develops cognitively, emotionally, and socially. Therefore, someone who experiences trauma as a child has increased chances of suffering from mental health issues, relationship difficulties, and repeated abuse. It is also common for children to be seemingly unaffected for many years, before symptoms of their trauma appear in their adult life. (UK Trauma Council)

You can be supportive to someone who has experienced trauma by simply listening. This should be done without asking for any further information, questioning their response to what they have experienced (even if you believe you would react in a very different way to the same situation), or providing advice. It is also good to encourage victims of trauma to make their own choices – trauma tends to make people feel they have no control over their own life, so telling them what to do will only add to their feeling of powerlessness. In addition, it may help to stay clear of any topics that are likely to be triggering. (Mind, 2020)

RefuNet teachers are free to set their own boundaries with their students as they wish: some choose not to discuss personal life at all, while some develop more friendly relationships. However, either way, counselling is not a part of the role of a tutor for RefuNet, and teachers are not expected to be mental health experts. If you are asked for further support with trauma, or any other mental health issue, you can signpost to one or more of the organisations linked below. Equally, if you feel that someone else telling you about their trauma is affecting your own mental health, setting boundaries for yourself is important, and you are welcome to email if you need further support.

If you would like to learn more about trauma-informed teaching of refugees, we suggest reading the following article by Aleks Palanac, an academic who specialises in this topic: Alternatively, for anyone who may want further information but struggles with reading lengthy articles, Aleks has made a video:

Options for Signposting:


UK Trauma Council, ‘Trauma’,

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