Social work students help refugees in Europe

Doctoral students from the School of Social Policy & Practice shared their expertise with leaders at an NGO that provides trauma-informed services for refugees in Athens.

DSW Cohort in Greece
  Photo: School of Social Policy & Practice

After an intense, trauma-focused semester of classroom learning, doctoral students from the University of Pennsylvania traveled to Greece as part of a pilot international immersion

During their weeklong trip in late June to Athens, 11 doctorate of social work (DSW) students from the School of Social Policy & Practice learned about geopolitical factors contributing to the refugee crisis in Europe, and how local nonprofit, non-governmental organizations, like the Melissa Network for Migrant Women, are responding. 

The Melissa Network provides trauma-informed services to female refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia, and other regions, assisting them with rebuilding their lives by teaching them about their rights, how to speak Greek, job searching, resume building, and violence against women. Since its inception in 2016, the agency has been following a “sanctuary model,” but they didn’t have a name for it. Now, they do, along with ongoing long-distance support from Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice.

DSW Cohort in Greece vertical
  Photo: School of Social Policy & Practice

Sandra Bloom, who coined the term “sanctuary model,” a theory-based, trauma-informed, evidence-supported, whole-culture approach to leadership that helps organizations manage stress when delivering services, taught “Trauma-Informed Communities, Trauma-Responsive Systems, and Trauma-Specific Treatment,” along with Christine Courtois.

Part of the School’s three-year DSW requirements, the course was designed to be applied in an international context and addressed trauma, post-traumatic disorders, approaches to treatment, violence as a public health issue, and “vicarious trauma,” or the second-hand trauma experienced by caregivers such as EMTs, firefighters, and social workers.

For the DSW students, visiting the Melissa Network was an opportunity to see a trauma-informed “sanctuary model,” in action by observing its interactive workshops.

“The Melissa Network takes a trauma-informed, multi-pronged approach, providing psychotherapy, one-on-one and group counseling; movement, art, and dance therapy; poetry workshops, and more,” says Lina Hartocollis, director of the DSW Program. “It’s a place where we could offer a meaningful experience for students to deepen their learning while sharing their expertise through consultation.”

While meeting with the agency’s leaders, DSW students talked about their experiences as clinical social workers, ways to address certain situations, perspectives on trauma-informed care, and possible avenues for strengthened programming. In addition, Bloom joined the group via a video conference to discuss the obstacles associated with being a trauma-informed organization in an unusual setting.

DSW Cohort in Greece meeting
  Photo: School of Social Policy & Practice

“It’s a lovely atmosphere different from many institutional settings that the students are familiar with. It’s very client-centered, and it felt like someone’s beautiful home,” Hartocollis says. “That was one of the most striking differences the students noted.” 

One of those DSW students who noticed the atmospheric contrast was Kaley Gerstley, a New York City-based social worker who has primarily worked in massive institutional settings. 

“From the moment you walk into the building, you can feel the healing power. It feels like a home, not simply because of the layout, but rather because of the people in it,” Gerstley says. “Even when groups or meetings were taking place, there were children playing, women laughing, and friends sitting with each other. It felt like a place of true connections, where people were able to speak freely, without shame or bias, and genuinely experience the ‘unconditional positive regard,’ we talk about so often in social work.”

Another DSW student who noticed a stark difference was Jason Mallonee, who spent six years as a teacher in schools where students regularly faced trauma related to violence, homelessness, and poverty, before becoming a social worker.

“It was invigorating to see an organization place so much value on people, as opposed to what we often see in the United States: value placed on cutting costs and moving people through care as rapidly as possible,” Mallonee says. “It is an example of how to provide comprehensive interventions in an environment that feels like a home.” 

The students also visited the agency’s shelters that house unaccompanied minors, including one “for young boys and girls who have experienced unspeakable traumas,” Hartocollis says. 

DSW in shelter
  DSW student Jonathan Rivers talks with a child at the Melissa Network during the cohort’s visit to Athens. Photo: School of Social Policy & Practice 

For Mallonee, spending time at the shelter evoked feelings of sadness for the children’s loss, but optimism for their future, he says, citing the children’s ability to easily connect with the visiting DSW students

“While they have experienced trauma, they are still seeking out attachments with caring adults,” he says. “They are capable of developing relationships and adjusting to routines.”

Later during the trip, the students toured the Eleonas Refugee Camp.   

“I can only imagine how difficult it would be to have to leave your home country due to violence, and then to live in a state of limbo while awaiting asylum,” Mallonee says. “Many have been in the camp for an extended period of time. This can be dehumanizing, and compound an already traumatic experience, but I appreciate that Greece has taken measures to keep families together and support those crossing its borders, especially in light of its financial crisis.”

While visiting the camp, Cate Revak, an Air Force veteran, two-time Penn alumna, and DSW student, also noticed the Athenians’ commitment to keeping families intact and treating refugees humanely, even with scarce resources.

“Due to its geographic location, Greece has to be a part of the conversation. There are a million Athenians without jobs, but they pledge to treat the refugees that arrive at their doorstep like human beings,” Revak explains. “In Athens, they built trailers with air conditioning and internet access.” 

DSW Cohort Touring Refugee Camp
  The DSW cohort tours a refugee camp in Athens, Greece. Photo: School of Social Policy & Practice

For Revak, the immersion also changed her perspectives on her own identity as a feminist. 

“American women have enough to sustain our existence, but to the refugees at the Melissa Network, being a feminist is about their own survival,” she says. “They are feminists in a way that women in the U.S. are not: We are often concerned with developing our feminism positioned ‘against maleness,’ but their idea of feminism is cradled in community. These women make a meal and take care of others, and that’s an act of feminism for them.”

For Hartocollis and Jeff Johnson-Curry, the administrative coordinator of the DSW Program, who organized the trip, international immersion experiences like this one show the School of Social Policy & Practice’s devotion to creating transformational partnerships that provide students with a deeper understanding of developing global issues and allow them to make an impact.

“We’re global citizens and we need to learn about what we can bring back that’s going well; we can import good ideas,” Hartocollis says. “Hopefully, we can spread the knowledge we learned to help make people more aware and be good citizens and students of the world.”

DSW in Greece
  In Athens, the DSW cohort toured the Acropolis Museum and Parthenon, National Archeological Museum, and other historic and cultural sites. Photo: School of Social Policy & Practice