Hala Al Sayed (second from the right) has long experience on social work and workshops helping professionals manage their workload. “Although I have already been trained in stress management, I can always expand my knowledge."

Refugee camp workers learn stress management to cope with desperate situations

Feature. Palestinian social workers in Lebanon have been training with psychologists to manage the stress caused by their job. The trainees are now learning to pass their skills on.

Hanna Hirvonen Photo Hanna Hirvonen, Mikko Heiskala


The Nahr El Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon is a tough working environment. Social worker Hala Al Sayed is employed by the civic organisation Beit Atfal Assumoud (BAS), which focuses on helping Palestinian refugees in the weakest positions. There are many people in need of social work and resources are scarce.

“I feel like I’m racing against time,” says Al Sayed.

She has been doing social work at the camp for more than 20 years, and is currently mainly working with children suffering from mental health issues. Most of her working days are also occupied with listening to parents talking about the plight of their families. “I sometimes feel like I am accumulating the feelings of others inside of me.”

I would like to learn to relax when I am with my clients. I could then reflect my feelings on them, and at least not further stress them with my own attitudes.

The year 2007 is still weighing heavily on Nahr El Bared. At that time, the refugee camp was razed to the ground by bombings and people’s homes were destroyed. The housing situation is one of the most stressful things at the camp. Despite all the things she hears, the social worker tries to remain positive. She is working for her clients.

“I would like to learn to relax when I am with my clients. I could then reflect my feelings on them, and at least not further stress them with my own attitudes.”

Fortunately, learning stress management is now in the pipeline for both workers and clients. Hala Al Sayed is one of the 10 social workers undergoing training in stress management skills and how to teach them to others, provided by the organisation Finnish Psychologists for Social Responsibility (FiPSR).

Support for desperate workers

Lebanon has a total of 12 Palestinian camps. Psychologist Nina Lyytinen first got to know the camps and the people living there in 2008. Her colleague Kirsti Palonen got her interested in a project that promoted the well-being of refugees through physical exercise.

The BAS social workers were involved in the arrangements for it and, during the years of cooperation, Lyytinen and Palonen got to see their everyday lives. Social work in the camps is extremely stressful, but is carried out with great motivation, without complaints for the testing nature of the job.

“It requires unbelievable expertise and strength to constantly be faced with the suffering and desperation of people. The desperation of people not having even basic things like civil rights,” explains Lyytinen.

In Finland, she works as an occupational health psychologist, and she knows that some of the stress factors she meets in her work, such as overwork are also familiar to Finnish workers. What is particularly difficult in the situation of the BAS social workers is that they themselves are also Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Most of them live in the same refugee camps as their clients. Their daily lives entail much the same stress as those of their clients.

Social workers from various refugee camps take part in the trainer training courses. Amal Ibrahim (right) and Omaima El Zaher work in Southern Lebanon. They want to learn to use the right kind stress management tools in the right situations. Photo: Hanna Hirvonen

This gave rise to the idea of organising stress management workshops for them as voluntary work through FiPSR.

The first thing that Lyytinen and Palonen learned concerning the project was that it is important for the social workers to find the means to promote their own well-being and maintain their working capacity, especially in the local organisation where staff were used to thinking primarily – and actually only – about the clients.

Improving powers of concentration through practice

The social workers working in the refugee camps exhibited not only perseverance but also the ability to react quickly to changing situations.

“In the workshops, they have learned how to calm the body and mind,” continues Nina Lyytinen.

It was 2014 when stress management workshops for Palestinian social workers began. The workshops then contained a lively and noisy group of about 20 social workers. At the beginning of the three-day course, the participants were in such an over-active state that even one-minute’s silence was a major challenge.

In a refugee camp the environment is never peaceful, even during family visits.

During the course, one participant fainted. Over the years, the popularity of the different relaxing breathing and meditative exercises has increased among the social workers. They can take advantage of them, for example before meeting a client.

“In a refugee camp the environment is never peaceful, even during family visits. There might be dozens of people in a small room, and the job requires the ability to ignore the different stimuli around you. Concentration is the key thing that the social workers have been able to improve.”

Nahr El Bared refugee camp was destroyed in 2007, when the Lebanon army banished Fatah al-Islam fighting group from the area. Rebuilding is still unfinished and the poor housing situation is one of the biggest stress factors for people living on the camp. Photo: Hanna Hirvonen

Short peaceful moments give strength

Generally speaking, the workshops teach what stress is, what causes it and how its symptoms can be relieved. Social worker Hala Al Sayed has noticed that stress hits her when she cannot provide a concrete solution to the problems of her clients. “For example, when a family is in financial difficulties, I can often only listen.”

In the stress management workshops, people discuss how important listening is. Sometimes just listening is enough.

“People want to be heard, seen and met. A social worker is often in a situation where he or she is unable to solve the problem, so help can then be provided by just listening,” says Nina Lyytinen.

The social workers had also begun to pass the stress management skills that they had learned on to their relatives and colleagues.

If the matter continues to bother you, however, you can then use your own stress management methods. “You can work with your own body and mind and bring your attention back to the moment. Worrying about it does not help.”

Social work means constantly giving your time to others. In order to cope with work, however, you must also remember to allow time for yourself.

Al Sayed has noticed that she finds strength in small, calm moments.“When I go home, I drink coffee and pray. I love my morning coffee breaks with my colleagues.”

Lyytinen hopes that every participant in the workshops learns one thing: I too am important.

Progress in stress management skills for other groups

The stress management workshops were held until 2018. At work, the social workers discussed what they had learned. Other workers in the organisation then also became interested in their own occupational well-being.

“When I met somebody from the BAS office, they asked me about admission to the course. People from other professional groups said that their jobs were also stressful,” says Nina Lyytinen.

The social workers had also begun to pass the stress management skills that they had learned on to their relatives and colleagues.

“We therefore decided that it was time to move to the next level – to organise training for trainers. ”After this has been done, the Palestinian social workers will be able to teach stress management skills professionally to different groups in their own communities.

The first course of training for trainers was in December 2019. In addition to Lyytinen, the trainers in Lebanon were psychologist and psychotherapist Sirpa Partinen and psychotherapist Markku Andelin.

Nina Lyytinen works as an occupational health psychologist and volunteers at Palestinian camp in Lebanon. Photo: Mikko Heiskala

On the last training day, the social workers got to put what they had learned into practice. They planned and held a stress management session for their colleagues. The presence and calmness that the group transmitted was impressive.

“Some of them who had never before been able to be quiet even for a moment taught their colleagues with a calm approach.”

One participant in the training course had more than 30 years’ experience of social work. In the workshops, social workers with long experience have learned to recover. “Many say that now they sleep better. Work is more enjoyable when you are not constantly tired.”

Thanks to the training for trainers, experienced practitioners are starting to teach others. In the refugee camps, mothers are under particular stress and constitute one group that will be taught stress management in the future.

Hala Al Sayed has already lectured to groups of mothers. The training for trainers, which will continue until October 2020, is also teaching how the ability to concentrate on breathing can be passed on, even during short encounters; for example, when a client is waiting to see a doctor and a social worker meets him or her in the waiting room.