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How to Be a Good Host to a Refugee

I got in touch with a psychiatrist to figure out the best way of treating someone who's likely traumatised by recent stressful experiences.

af Kenny Noorlander
29 september 2015, 8:00am



A group of anarchists took over an old university building in Athens, with plans to turn it into temporary accommodation for refugees. More on this here. (Photo by Panagiotis Maidis.)

With several countries closing their borders, certain politicians calling for a complete stop to all immigration, and local mayors making weird videos warning migrants not to come to making weird videoswarning migrants not to come to their town, it is easy to forget that across Europe a lot of people have been doing their best to help the refugees arriving in their countries. In many major European cities, citizens have been welcoming refugees at train stations, donating clothes and food and in some cases even offering to put up migrants in their own homes.

In Berlin, a couple set up website that helps you raise the funds to donate your room to a refugee, while similar initiatives are springing up all over Europe. The Dutch website I'm a Host Family for a Refugeewhere people can sign up to spend time with migrants during the day, help them with practical issues or host someone – received over 24.000 applications in the last three weeks.

If you decide to engage with a refugee however, it is important to remember that they are likely to be traumatised by recent stressful experiences and could therefore require special treatment. I wanted to know if there is anything to look out for in such cases, so I got in touch with psychiatrist Ruud Jongedijk, Director of the Dutch foundation Centrum '45 which helps people cope with traumatic events in their lives. I asked him about issues that you're likely to run into if you decide to open your house to a refugee and what you definitely should and shouldn't do.

VICE: Is there a dominant emotion that you have noticed in refugees? What is the best way to deal with that, when interacting with people who are fleeing war?
Ruud Jongedijk:
We often see a build-up of emotions. Refugees have often endured terrible things in their home countries, as well as on the way here. For example, at the centre I met a mother who lost her child during the journey. All those traumatic experiences tend to pile up. People cope in the beginning – they have a lot of things to take care of and get a lot of attention from aid workers and volunteers. We call that the "honeymoon phase" – everything is great. But the bad memories often resurface and can act as a major setback.

We saw that a lot with refugees from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Some of those refugees were put up with host families. That often went fine at the beginning but problems did arose later. That's partly because the refugees had some time to rest and get settled. They'd had some time to think about it all and so the stress of everything they'd gone through started to manifest itself in different ways. Intrusive memories are widespread, like in nightmares or flashbacks. People become depressed, have trouble sleeping or are easily agitated. Those are symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Not everyone develops PTSD – people are very resilient – but it does happen. It must be noted here, that traumatic experiences don't automatically lead to PTSD.


Bakary, Mareike and Jonas of the website, 'Refugees Welcome', which helps you raise the funds to share your flat with a refugee. More on this here. Photo by Jean-Paul Pastor Guzmán

Is it a good idea to do something fun with your guests or is it better to just let them be?
Playing football with them or helping them out with practical stuff can be great. The best way to prevent PTSD is by offering support in a social way. You shouldn't let these people sit in their room by themselves all the time, otherwise they'll just keep going over everything they went through in their mind. What you need to do is make them part of your social structure. Keep them busy. But what we call "watchful waiting" is very important. You are present, but you don't force your company on anyone – instead you keep an eye on them to make sure they are doing OK.

How can one make a refugee part of a household without being too pushy?
I wouldn't pressure anyone into doing things they don't feel up to. It's better to phrase these things as an invitation, instead of a statement. It should be: "Would you like to have dinner with us?" or "Shall we play some football?" instead of "We'll all have dinner together tonight and then, we're going to play football." You can also help them find their way to the right authorities and organisations. By offering these things, you can show your involvement and support.

If they start talking about the things they have experienced, make sure the conversation doesn't go on for too long. Don't let them go into detail and don't ask for it. Show concern: Do let them know that you are interested in what they have to say but have the guts to stop the conversation when it gets to be too much. It can become too stressful for the person concerned. By reliving memories one can develop other anxieties.

But should you breach the subject yourself?
Some want to talk about their experiences a lot, others not at all. There are people who are so concerned about the situation at home that all they want to do is watch TV and keep abreast of news in their country, while others don't want to hear about any of it.

But not talking about the past at all is also unnatural. You can say something like, "Man, you must have been through a lot." Showing interest is good, as long as you don't dig too deep. It's a big no-no to delve deeply into traumatic experiences. If they start to lose themselves in their history, bring them back to the here and now by suggesting an activity. Don't try to offer them any kind of psychiatric care yourself. It is better to just support them in a social sense.


Watch our documentary, 'Life As an Illegal Immigrant in Greece':

And if you notice that someone needs professional help?
The biggest danger is that we lose sight of refugees. When you provide shelter at home, you can form a vital link between the refugee and professional help. You might not be a trained care professional, but surely you can notice early signs of problems. If someone retreats, doesn't sleep, starts drinking heavily, gets angry quickly – that sort of stuff – it's time to get help. The local refugee council or your GP can provide that help.

Do you think people underestimate what they're getting into, when they take in a refugee?
Well, maybe. It is a very nice and idealistic idea, but do you know who you'll get? Do you know what that person has gone through? You shouldn't underestimate the practical side of what you're about to do either. Giving up your privacy might be doable for a week, but doing it for a couple of months is a completely different story. Cultural differences can also be an issue. It is important to do your research and really make sure you are ready to make that kind of commitment.

So making sure you're prepared is the most important thing?
Yes, be prepared. Don't rush into anything and make sure you're backed by a professional organisation. Decide in advance what you are and aren't comfortable with. Are you OK with three young guys coming to live with you, a family with young children or a childless couple? Also set a fixed end date. You have to know how long you are willing to do this for. If you just say, "Just let them come, and we'll see," you might end up hosting for longer than you're comfortable with. That's not good for anyone.

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Ruud Jongedijk
Centrum '45