More than 50,000 Ukrainians have already passed through the Refugee Assistance Center in Prague. Klára Koutníková and Jan Remeš, psychologists from the Prague fire service, also help them at the Congress Centre. People who haven’t slept in a few days and have come a long way can reflect, they say. Above all, they need to calm down and relax.
As firefighting psychologists, in your work you encounter trauma in fires or traffic accidents, is this different from the trauma of refugees from Ukraine?
Jan Remes: It’s not always a trauma, it’s not always so dramatic. Anyway, it’s different. We know accidents happen or the occasional fire, and we can work with those situations. The fact that there is a war and that we are dealing with people who have experienced what we see on television is new for us.
In what mental state do people come here?
Klara Koutnikova: People who come here to the Palais des Congrès should register as soon as possible. They arrive with the need to provide visas, housing, health insurance and work. There is often no room for treatment and treatment of trauma, it will come later. We mainly provide psychological first aid and respond to the needs of hunger, thirst, warmth and a certain sense of security.
Jan Remes: The new arrivals have traveled a long and difficult journey. They often haven’t slept for several days, they are tired, often they don’t even know what will happen to them. They need to fix themselves. If they need it, we take care of them so that they can handle the wheel here and be able to cross it more serenely.
Klára Koutníková and Jan Remeš, psychologists from the ranks of the Prague fire brigade Photo: Jakub Plíhal
Have you encountered a critical case?
Klara Koutnikova: We come across cases where people think under the weight of exhaustion for short. For example, we once discussed the fact that my mother planned to return immediately to Ukraine with her children. To make such a decision, you need to rest, gain strength.
Jan Remes: In this case, it was enough to calm the family, let them rest and give them food and drink. Then they thought differently.
The children also come to the Palais des Congrès with their mothers, do they also need your psychological help?
Klara Koutnikova: We do not provide targeted therapeutic care for children, there is no room here and there is no demand yet. However, there are a number of children’s corners provided by volunteers from various non-profit organizations. Volunteer medical clowns or puppeteers take care of the children while their mothers take care of the formalities. The children are distracted from the situation, at least for a moment, and experience moments of joy.
Do you refer mothers to therapy centers or organizations that can help children avoid future consequences?
Klara Koutnikova: It’s hard to say if it can go wrong and have no consequences.
Jan Remes: Of course, there will be long-term care here, but now we are still in the acute phase. Information on how to talk to children and who to turn to is available for refugees. However, as firefighters, we mainly deal with the acute phase in which we still find ourselves. We pass on medium and long-term care, whether to community work of Ukrainians who have professional training and can help their compatriots, or to non-profit organizations and others who have the capacity to do this long-term work. .
Do you know someone needs acute help or are people looking for you?
Jan Remes: Both. All staff know we are there and will contact us if necessary. Up to three thousand people pass through the center every day, so it is not possible to serve them all. Of course we try to catch it and take care of it, but in this number they are drops in the sea. We intervene mainly on request.
You work for five people, isn’t that enough?
Jan Remes: We work in what we have. Together with the municipality, the Social Services Center and the crisis exit organization, we have started a project to activate psychologists and crisis interventionists who want to help as volunteers. From this week they should be involved in the work both here at the center and in the emergency accommodation on the ground.
Refugees usually don’t speak Czech, how do you communicate with them?
Klara Koutnikova: When we need it, we have an interpreter on hand, and if not, we negotiate non-verbally or through a translator. The language barrier is, of course, a problem, but if there is no rest, we improvise.
Is it possible to calm a person without words?
Jan Remes: It often helps that we are together. Knowing that a person is not alone, that they have someone with them, works well for most people. But it is more difficult. We are used to talking to people, and when it doesn’t work, it’s harder. Even so, we succeeded when needed.
They’re glad someone noticed them
What should be done so that the refugees cope as well as possible with the situation and have the least possible consequences for the future?
Klara Koutnikova: We need to secure them, both materially and mentally. Ukrainians often come to the Czech Republic in a state of mental discomfort and material need. To bounce back, they must be secure here and now. They should then be offered follow-up care.
Jan Remes: It would help the most if the whole war ended and they could go home to Ukraine, but unfortunately that is not in our power. We try to do it here as best we can, we don’t work miracles. It’s about helping another person who finds themselves in an abnormal situation and tries to deal with it. We are here to help them with that.
How to help refugees react?
Jan Remes: They are grateful. Even for the fact that a person comes to them and gives them a bottle of drink or talks to them about common things. They are happy that someone noticed them, did something for them. For a moment they forget that they are running from something, that they have to go somewhere and that they have to fix everything. Really little is enough.
Do you have a particular story that struck you?
Klara Koutnikova: It is difficult to choose the worst because we judge it from our subjective point of view. What I find crazy and terrible may be seen differently by others. Some situations are difficult for Ukrainian and Russian interpreters. They see, for example, in a live broadcast, how they lost their house.
Jan Remes: We were right there when one of the interpreters heard the bad news from back home, so we immediately took her aside.
I noticed that the chaplains also offer help here, how many are there?
Klara Koutnikova: There are several of them and they take turns. Most of the chaplains are from the Orthodox Church, but representatives of other churches also come here.
Jan Remes: Even when the idea of assistance centers arose, the involvement of spiritual assistance was also planned. The spiritual side of a person is important, especially when a person is in a marginal situation. In the great hall there is an improvised chapel, where people can come to the chaplain at any time. Spiritual accompaniment is provided by the chaplains themselves, which is provided by the World Council of Churches with which we work.