Empowering Self Sufficiency and Community Strength

Posted on January 9, 2013
Professor Lewis Aptekar delivers Psycho-Social Training in Tel Aviv to asylum seekers from Eritrea and the Sudan

Professor Lewis Aptekar delivers Psycho-Social Training in Tel Aviv to asylum seekers from Eritrea and the Sudan

In late August of 2012, a volunteer at the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) wrote an editorial for the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, abhorring the Israeli Interior Minister’s request to detain Sudanese asylum seekers in make-shift tents in the Negev desert beginning in October 2012.  Many of these people were survivors of the Darfur genocide, and later of human trafficking.  On October 25th the order was rescinded.

The asylum seeker population in Israel also includes Sudanese and Eritreans and numbers about 60,000.  Most live in Tel Aviv in the area around the city’s Central Bus Station.

ARDC is the major human rights organization in Israel helping asylum seekers. ARDC provides legal and medical help, an extensive educational program, a women’s shelter, and a women’s business cooperative.

I wanted to volunteer in Israel while spending the fall semester in Tel Aviv and arranged my volunteer opportunity through Skilled Volunteer for Israel.  I began volunteering with the ARDC in August, 2012 and learned that many of the ARDC professional staff worried that an unintended consequence of giving too much to the asylum seekers prevented them from building community and fending for themselves.

As a Professor of Counselor Education at San Jose State University in the USA, I have extensive experience working with refugees.  I was able to put my experience to use by developing and teaching a class on psycho-social services and community development to the Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers.

I worked with Johannes Bayu (Executive Director of ARDC) Diddy Mymin Kahn (Psyhosocial Coordinator) and Michal Zimry (Director of the Women’s Shelter) to plan the curriculum, advertise the course, and interview potential candidates. We settled on ten students, five from each community

Once the class began, our first surprise was the level of education the students had achieved before leaving their country of origin. Several were University graduates and many had been in University when their studies were interrupted.

We began the course by asking the participants about their needs.  The students shared that they wanted to help themselves so they could be effective helpers in their community. They wanted to learn how to identify mental health problems and learn what resources were available to those with problems.

Class met weekly for three hours. We also ran two six hour workshops. We decided to split class time between teaching information and didactic group counseling so the participants could work on their own problems while learning how to run a counseling group in their community. The students learned how to take a case history, understand people’s current mental status, recognize symptoms of depression, stress and post traumatic stress.  They also learned some basic counseling skills.

We were happy about the student’s diligence and commitment to the training. They came to class on time and were ready to work when they arrived. They had to write papers, present cases, and take a written test before they were awarded Certificates of Completion in this first offered ARDC Community Psycho-social Level One Training. These students have signed up for Level Two training which ARDC will begin in 2013.  The ARDC leadership agreed that this course helped achieve its goal of training a new cadre of community mental health leaders, ready to get involved in helping their communities help themselves.