Iraq: Addressing Trauma Through Social Support Groups


A dozen men are sitting and talking in a makeshift concrete shelter in Kirkuk, Iraq. At first glance, they look like a group of local officials. But as the men open up, it’s obvious they’re not discussing regional affairs. This meeting is about hope, fear, and everyday problems.

As the crisis in Iraq drags on, providing psychosocial support to affected communities is one of Handicap International’s top priorities: “The people are often depressed," says Jérémie Zahorski, a Handicap International field coordinator. "They’ve lost all hope in the future. They’ve been displaced, their homes have been destroyed, they’ve had traumatic experiences, and, as a result, their mental well-being is in a critical state. If you ignore psychological distress, it just gets worse."

Few humanitarian actors provide psychosocial support in Kirkuk, so Handicap International's regular group sessions are vital.

The people who come to these groups are generally expected to attend several sessions on different topics, such disability, violence, hopes, and the problems people face when they have to start their lives again in a new place. All ten men in today's group were displaced from their homes after they fled the fighting in their region and sought refuge in Kirkuk. They begin the session by discussing their daily struggles with Handicap International’s team of psychosocial workers, Chino and Schwan. The team listens carefully as the men talk about their problems and explain how important the support of family, friends, and Handicap International is to them.

Chino and Schwan organize various activities to help the men put their emotions into words and to share them with others. Everyone plays an active role in the exercises. The psychosocial workers have won the men’s trust and they feel comfortable sharing their experiences.

Before the session ends, Schwan organizes a relaxation exercise. The goal is to help the men feel calmer and less anxious. Over the course of the sessions, this mental exercise also brings them physical relief and a greater sense of well-being. Lying on the ground, their eyes closed, they listen to Schwan’s voice and lose themselves in their thoughts. For a few minutes, they forget the fact that they’ve been displaced from their homes and the many hardships they face daily. They focus instead on the present moment and relax. Some even sigh, a sign that they have let themselves go.

The men slowly open their eyes again. It’s time to go. Some say they’re already looking forward to the next session. Since it launched its emergency response in Iraq in 2014, nearly 2,000 people, including these men, have benefited from Handicap International’s psychosocial support sessions.