Baltimore has become a major center for refugee resettlement. Between 2005 and 2009, nearly 4,000 refugees from 44 different countries were resettled in Maryland and more than 40 percent of those came to Baltimore.
Last year alone, the city welcomed more than 1,000 refugees.
But despite the serious psychological and emotional issues that many refugees must cope with because of the trauma of conflict, displacement, and extreme loss, no real network of mental health providers exists in the city to help them.
Lauren Goodsmith’s fellowship will go a long way toward changing that.
“Refugees often flee with nothing but the clothes on their back. They have experienced violence, displacement; some of them have spent years, even decades, in refugee camps before coming here. And then they confront the stress of acculturation, a new society, a different language,” says Goodsmith, who has spent her career in public health, health communications and working with refugees in several countries. “This project is designed particularly to provide therapeutic care and counseling to address the psycho-social needs of people who have been displaced.”
Goodsmith will work in close collaboration with agencies and nonprofits in the area such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which is the lead partner agency within the Baltimore Resettlement Center; the Maryland Office of Refugees and Asylees; the state Office of Immigrant Health; the Episcopal Refugee and Immigrant Center Alliance, and Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma.
The first goal will be to train interested and committed mental health providers to work with refugees, some of whom come from places such as Burma, Bhutan, Eritrea, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“There’s no absence of highly-competent, qualified mental health providers in the Baltimore area,” Goodsmith says. “But there are not many who have the depth of experience working with refugees, who have an understanding of the nature of the refugee experience. I know that many would welcome the opportunity to gain training and experience in working cross-culturally.” She emphasizes as well the importance of a strength-based perspective that recognizes the resilience of refugee clients.
Goodsmith already has approached some agencies and individuals about joining this effort and has been warmed by the response.
“I’m honored that so far all the people I’ve approached have said ‘yes,'” she says.
Once the providers are trained, Goodsmith wants to develop a professional network of referrals and mutual support. She hopes that this approach will greatly expand refugee clients’ access to appropriate services, whether for individual therapy, family counseling, or particular needs such as domestic violence response or treatment of conflict-related trauma.
After the network is established and she and her partners have conducted community outreach, Goodsmith hopes that refugees will also directly seek help for emotional and psychological issues they may be dealing with.
“My hope is that refugees will feel they would benefit from speaking with someone who understands what they have been through,” she says.