Volunteers on the ground in Bangladesh providing psychosocial support

The image of a group of women heading out to the makeshift camps in Bangladesh, their Red Cross t-shirts visible beneath their lightweight headscarves, remains in the mind of Denyse Bourgault.
Bourgault was on the ground in the Cox’s Bazar district as a psychosocial support (PSS) delegate from the Canadian Red Cross to help those who crossed the border fleeing violence in Myanmar.
The people she still thinks about are from the affected community and they wanted to help their people overcome what they had seen and lost, so they became PSS volunteers.
“There is something really beautiful about it,” Bourgault said.
It’s healing to be able to help others, she said, giving the example of one of the volunteers who was withdrawn when he first came to be part of the team.
“The more he went out in the field, the more there was light in his eyes.”
Volunteers providing psychosocial support in Bangladesh campsMahbuba, 25, is one of the volunteers. She crossed the border in late summer 2017, after her husband was killed. She came with her three sons aged 8, 6, and 4. Mahbuba said through a translator that doing PSS work “feels great.”
“Those people who have stories to tell me, I give them support, and let them know that we also have left our lives behind, and tell them it’s going to be okay,” she said.
There are 12 volunteers that are based out of the Red Cross Red Crescent field hospital. They arrive from the camp at 8:30 each morning and divide into three groups. Four volunteers head to the Canadian mobile medical clinics to do outreach.
“We play with the children at the mobile clinics, we help people; the old who didn’t know where the distribution is, we just help them to find a distribution,” Mahbuba said.
Another group walks over to a nearby makeshift settlement, providing recreational activities for children, visiting families, and spreading the word of health services that are available.
“We are going around, and people ask us where the clinics and hospitals, distributions are, and we help them find this,” said 25-year-old Rasheda, through a translator.
“We talk about our countries, about our animals which we left behind, and also talk about our husbands, who were killed or lost and need to be found … I tell them I also lost my everything, so don’t cry, it’s going to be okay.”
Child-friendly spaces at a camp in BangladeshThe third group of volunteers stays at the field hospital, working at the child-friendly space, visiting with families who have sick children, and talking to patients.
“I was inspired by people who made the hospital for no fee, and they’re treating anyone that comes here, I’m inspired by this,” said Arshad Ullah, 22.
Capacity building is one of the most important things that Canadian Red Cross does as part of its international work.
“When we look at training local volunteers, we’re talking about volunteers who have been here, understand the context, they have lived the experience … they provide the support on every level in their communities,” said Sandra Damota, a PSS delegate from Toronto.
Damota said it’s not about training so much as showing the volunteers the value of the things they are already doing. PSS is not about diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, but rather psychological first aid, proving support in the same way you might to a friend, she said.
The volunteers come back from the field and we discuss how to address the issues they encountered, said Bourgault. It’s important that they feel good about the work they are doing.
“If we take over, that doesn’t help,” she said, because the international delegates return home.
Arshad, Rasheda, Mahbuba and the other local PSS volunteers are overcoming their own personal losses to help others in their communities. They are resilient. These are the Faces of Humanity.

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