Five Tips to Cope with Feelings of Helplessness and Hopelessness about the European Refugee Crisis

Photo Credit: Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

Photo Credit: Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

By Alison Bell

What can you do when you feel helpless and hopeless about the European refugee crisis?  You see images of desperate women and children being shoved by Hungarian police, of a young boy’s body washed up on a Turkish beach, and of families packed together on overcrowded boats, faces twisted in fear and despair as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean.   You think about the four million Syrians who have been displaced by war, of the tens of thousands of refugees who need help now and of the   thousands more who are continuing to stream into Europe who will need help in the future.

You feel powerless and overwhelmed, the human suffering too much to bear.  Experts say this is the worse refugee crisis since World War II, yet here you are, half a world away, passively watching the horrors unfold on TV and your laptop.

There are steps to take.  You can donate money to one of the many charities raising funds for the refugees.  You can sign a petition to the United States urging our nation to re-settle more Syrians than the 1,500 they have taken in since the start of the crisis. However, these actions may not be enough to allay your anxiety and sadness.

How to cope with a situation you have no control over?  Here, Magdalene Benitez, MSW, the lead therapist at Hillsides Family Resource Centers in Echo Park for the school-based and community outpatient program, offers these tips:

  • Talk about the situation with friends and family. “Hopelessness is fueled by isolation,” says Benitez.  “Reach out and connect with others who share your thoughts and concerns, and you will automatically start to feel better.”   Besides, together, you may figure out some innovative way to support the refugees, or at least show your support, you wouldn’t have thought of on your own.
  • Do some good in your own community. Maybe you can’t comfort a crying child in a makeshift refugee  camp  in Greece or Turkey, but you can volunteer at a local homeless shelter or donate to or volunteer at a place like Hillsides, and nurture a child in need in your own community.   Giving back to those you can affect directly will help offset your sense of powerlessness and give you a sense of purpose and control.
  • Do your part to fight prejudice and discrimination.   Sometimes this means first gazing into your own soul.  “Everyone can benefit from looking at what their biases are,” says Benitez.  “How we react to people is based a lot on how we grew up, what messages we received about people who are different.  Now is a good time to look inward and ask ourselves, how do we respond to those who are in our community, and what can we do to  make them feel valued and welcomed despite the differences?”   Taking positive actions in your community to be inclusive can be empowering and make you feel like you are part of a global solution to address injustices caused by the response to cultural differences.
  • Accept what you can and cannot do.   Even if you send money to aid the refugees or write a letter to your US Congressman or another country asking it to open its doors to a larger number of displaced people, the reality is, we are some 6,000 miles away from the refugee crisis in Europe. “ It’s fine to ask yourself, what can  I do to make a positive impact on the world, but apart from packing up your bags and moving to Hungary, you have to be realistic about what your limitations are,” says Benitez.  “Try to be okay with the idea that what you do is good enough for right now.”
  • Find what hope you can.  To a certain extent, your reaction to the refugee crisis reveals something about your own resilience and your ability to handle adversity.  Interwoven into the tales of suffering are uplifting stories, such as the German people welcoming exhausted and battered families with gifts and food.  Filtering the good news along with the bad can help offset the deep feelings of despair over a situation that is mainly out of your hands and help you build resiliency for the future.

Magdalena Benetiz, MSW, started at Hillsides 16 years ago, where she was the director of Hillsides Altadena Family Center for four years. She left Hillsides to live in Chile and then returned to California to work for the Office of Child Abuse Prevention, providing training and technical assistance to family resource centers across the state.   She has been part of the FRC Echo Park team, helping to serve youth and families, since August 2014.

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