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Three Day Refugee Trauma 101 Continuing Education Course

This 18-hour, continuing education course for volunteers and mental health professionals working with refugees​ introduces the refugee trauma experience to enhance resilience and self-healing. The course also covers the self-care of helpers, and includes lectures, discussions and experiential workshops.

When: April 8-10, 2016.
Where: Laurier’s Waterloo campus.
Cost: $150 plus HST (includes lunches)


Heidi Ahonen, PhD, RP, MTA, FAMI, professor of Music Therapy at Wilfrid Laurier University, graduate of the Harvard programme of Global Trauma Recovery: Refugee Trauma. Ahonen is a psychotherapist specialized in refugee trauma and PTSD. She conducts vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue workshops all over the world.

Brice Balmer holds a DMin in spirituality and addiction from University of St Michael’s College, an MA in regional planning and resource development from the University of Waterloo, and an MDiv from Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

Iman Arab graduated from Aleppo University in Syria with a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery degree, then a MPH from Damascus University. As a doctor, Arab worked in varies Middle Eastern countries, including Syria, Kuwait and Jordan, with both national and international organizations. Her professional career in Canada has been health-related, especially in the field of mental health promotion and education, diversity and intercultural communication skills. Over the past 10 years she has been a board member of the Reception House for government-assisted refugees, and of the Muslim Social Services. She is a member of the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council and Community Coalition on Refugee and Immigrant Concerns, and the vice-chair for the Immigration Partnership – Belonging Group.

Topics Covered

Topics to be covered include:

  • Intercultural communication skills;
  • “Cultural meaning making” of trauma;
  • Introduction to refugee trauma;
  • Understanding neurology and implications of PTSD;
  • Refugee trauma experience;
  • Trauma screening;
  • Stories that heal: introduction to refugee trauma and healing stories, and how to use storytelling to enhance resilience and self-healing;
  • Spirituality and trauma;
  • Participants’ own life stories;
  • Self-care of helpers: vicarious traumatization and compassion fatigue.


Download the Refugee Trauma 101 registration form and follow the instructions on the form.

Lost your colors? Lost connection?

The aid volunteer working in Haiti… Day after day, witnessing trauma, loss, and extreme suffering. Doing his best to help and rescue as many as he reach. One day he notices he has become numb. His ability to sleep and enjoy life has waned. He feels hopelessly inadequate and pushes those around him away. Seeking refuge, he just wishes to be alone. Prior passions have become distant memories. He has begun to lose hope… He may be a victim of vicarious trauma.

A therapist working with victims of sexual abuse… Day after day reliving the recollections of traumatized experiences. Doing her best to help them rebuild torn lives. One day, she notices she has become fearful of the future. Overly protective of her own children, she has difficulties around trust issues… She may be a victim of vicarious trauma.

The missionary worker helping HIV children and their mothers in a war torn country. Day after day, observing the sickness, death and emotional turmoil of innocent people. An awareness that she now feels irritability and vulnerability to over stimulation, self-blame, and a dampened meaning to her life and mission. She feels helpless and sorrow. There is too much suffering and she only has two hands and 24 hours in a day. She has come to experience a lack of boundaries when rescuing the trauma victims. She has also started to doubt her personal faith… she may be a victim of vicarious trauma.

A human rights investigator, tasked with discovering and revealing past wrongs. Investigating genocide, mass graves, rapes, and indescribable cruelty, one day he notices his restless sleep has been eroded by nightmares, unsettling images, flashbacks from stories he heard from eye-witnesses and families whose loved ones are missing. He has started to avoid social relationships and intimacy. He feels self-doubt, inability to make decisions, and he has become cynical. He has started to set rigid boundaries in relationships… He may be a victim of vicarious trauma.

Helping the Helper…. Getting back the colors

People we help change us. To appreciate them and ourselves, we must take care of ourselves too.

It is possible to gain empowerment over vicarious traumatization. The first step is to learn to appreciate and recognize our own emotions, needs, and boundaries. We also need to learn to gain a healthy balance between our work and rest. We all need the feeling of belonging, a true connection with others and to something greater (i.e. spirituality). We must gain back our sense of interdependence, meaning of life, and hope.

Reaching The Whole Person

Many groups are meeting the physical needs of people who have had their lives displaced, disrupted, or destroyed by conflicts around the world. The individuals behind More than Bread will endeavor to reach the whole person by equipping helpers with tools required to convey healing, providing direction so that distressed individuals may begin to find the journey back to wholeness – psychological and spiritual well-being.

More Than Bread will also help ‘those that help others’ deal with their own emotional distress and turmoil that they may find themselves wading through unexpectedly. Their own mission to better the world around them jeopardized, by their human limitations against a task so overwhelmingly large.

More Than Bread strives to touch the people who’s world of trauma is filled with helplessness. We attempt to create a domino effect by equipping helpers to convey hope and help to the emotionally hurting people in our world.

What is Vicarious Trauma? Who can it effect?

Working with traumatized people? Listening or witnessing their traumatizing experiences? Are you a helper: therapist, nurse, social worker, pastor, missionary worker, spiritual care worker, lawyer, rescue worker, frontline aid worker, organizational worker, friend, volunteer…?

Do you sometimes feel tired, burdened, helpless? Do you experience symptoms such as tearfulness, irritability, vulnerability to overstimulation, inability to sleep or relax? Do you sometimes have nightmares, disturbing images, flashbacks of stories you heard from your clients? Have you felt avoidance of social relationship, feelings? Do you sometimes feel numbness? Do you wish to be alone? Are you scared of your or your loved ones’ future? Do you often experience self-doubt, self-blame, dampened meaning of life, inability to make decisions, use creativity and your previous talents and passions? Have you noticed that you have become cynical and losing hope, fearful or overprotective? Have you started to set rigid boundaries in relationships or do you experience lack of boundaries when rescuing others? Have you started to doubt your personal spiritual beliefs?

Any helper who listens or witnesses other trauma victims suffering day after day, may end up experiencing the symptoms of vicarious traumatization, compassion fatique, or burn out… Furthermore, if our helping work takes place in an area of a collective trauma such as in a war torn country or in the catastrophes that surround natural disasters, it is important we realize that we also are on a danger zone of our own traumatization.

Vicarious Trauma is more serious than just a culture of many helping organizations; it can destroy helping professionals and volunteers health and ultimately steal away their joy. It is what happens to our physical, psychological, and spiritual health when we listen and/or witness to traumatic stories day after day or respond to traumatic situations while having to control our own emotional responses and stay calm and effective.  Many of us have experienced it… It makes us feel helpless and ultimately it can lead into burn-out and depression if not taken care. The helpers’ own self is a tool they use as a resource, transference, object and role- model in the therapeutic helping relationship. We also use ourselves as a container into which a person to be helped can release their life burdens and emotional pressures. Ultimately, helpers who help trauma victims may end up reacting with similar post-traumatic stress symptoms as their client do. Vicarious traumatization is something that threatens every single helping professional and volunteer worker…

Getting back the colors and connection…People we help change us; to appreciate them and ourselves, we must take care of ourselves too.

It is possible to gain empowerment over vicarious traumatization. The first step is to learn to appreciate and recognize our own emotions, needs, and boundaries. We also need to learn to gain a healthy balance between our work and rest. We all need the feeling of belonging, a true connection with others and to something greater (i.e. spirituality). We must gain back our sense of interdependence, meaning of life, and hope.

In the helping field it is important to admit that we are all more or less wounded healers. According to research ( i.e. Pearlman & Mac, 1995) those helpers with a history of their own trauma may be the most susceptible victims of vicarious traumatization and burn out. Furthermore, less experienced helpers are also more fragile. The professional factors contributing may also include lack of trauma group training, clinical supervision, lack of ventilation of emotions, emptying containers filled with our clients’ trauma, horror and grief.

The research (i.e. Sexton, 1999) shows that the most effective intervention for vicarious traumatization is a group of peers that allows us to explore our vicarious trauma symptoms and debrief our experiences. Away from our existing circumstances, personality, or personal history, there are certain factors (i.e. the work conditions and lack of understanding of PTSD, traumatic loss, or trauma recovery) that may contribute to vicarious traumatization.

Helping Helpers to Help- Workshops

Vicarious Traumatization and Trauma Interventions

We offer workshops that help helpers gain victory over their vicarious traumatization and burn-out symptoms and also workshops that teach basic skills and tools for people working with traumatized people and trauma groups. These workshops can either be organized on-site, to support helpers in the midst of their trauma work, or afterwards, to help them to debrief their experiences.

Empowerment over Vicarious Trauma and Burnout Experienced by Helpers: Emptying Containers

This experiential workshop is ideal for those who listen to the traumatic experiences of others and have experienced this has become a trauma that burdens them as well. The workshop either prepares people to work with traumatized people and/or at the trauma environment or it can help them to debrief their experiences either while working in the midst of it or after they have returned back to their home country … A variety of creative techniques will be used to help workshop participants to identify and explore their vicarious traumatization, compassion fatigue, secondary stress, burn-out, and resources. The goal is to expand participants’ understanding about the therapeutic relationship i.e. being a container and gaining understanding about their symptoms, transference and projection. Participants also learn to explore their feelings, inner images, physical sensations , and to alternate in their own and the clients` role.

Testing the Waters

When summer begins to wane and the feelings of reflection and change begin to overshadow once shallow thoughts… we should feel a need to give back while there is still time