International Refugee Crisis: An Endless Sky of Empathy Could Never Be Enough

By: Dr. Alessandra Sax, L.M.S.W., Ed.D., ACS Athens Counseling Psychologist, Jk-12/Wellness Center

“Eight million child refugees is a mental health time bomb. Ignoring it now would be a terrible mistake.”

Joan Smith-The Guardian-December 27, 2016


Many of us may try to acknowledge or even understand the international refugee crisis that the world faces today and in particularly Europe, by listening to the news, reading news, or even volunteering where there is need within one’s country. But how can we ever truly understand the trials and tribulations that any refugee child, or adult endures while fleeing from their home countries under inhumane conditions? Trying crossing of the borders by foot and ship, separation from family members, loss of family members and personal belongings, loss of security and freedom to be an individual with certain rights in society are just a few of the many traumas refugees are facing. The magnitude of separation from one’s secure attachment figure leaves damaging psychological wounds blind to the human eye. Bowlby (1969) postulated the importance of such attachments and how they pave the road for all healthy, secure and safe interpersonal relationships. So what does this mean for the refugee children whom are not only separated from their parents, siblings or other primary care givers and under sever conditions that may leave behind post-traumatic stress symptoms that eerily hover over the soul?

The Vulnerabilities of Refugee Children and Adults

Other than the psychological wounds manifesting from experiencing severe loss, many physical injuries, health issues, possible acts of violence, aggression, emotional, physical and sexual abuse may also be realities for many refugees. If we as educators, counselors and mental health professionals are to genuinely give a helping hand and heart to these individuals, one must first be mindful and sensitive to the diversity of culture in regards to where one is coming from, one belongs and moving onto.

Basic Human Needs

Additionally, when providing support to refugee children and adults, the basic human needs must be assessed firsthand in order to implement appropriate therapeutic interventions. According to Maslow (1943), every human being has five basic needs. These are: 1) biological and physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, 2) safety needs – protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear, 3) love and belongingness needs – friendship, intimacy, trust and acceptance, receiving and giving affection and love, affiliating, being part of a group (family, friends, work), 4) esteem needs – achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, self-respect, respect from others, 5) self-actualization needs – realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences (McLeod, 2007).

What is Culture?

In order to truly understand individuals that educators and mental health professionals work with, one must recognize many multi-cultural variables such as race, culture, gender, religion, sexual orientation, language and many more. Multi-cultural psychology or the multicultural model of human behavior encompasses more than issues concerning race, ethnicity or sexual orientation factors; it also includes socioeconomic status, physical disabilities, etc. (Sue et al., 2003). Culture as described by Matsumoto (2000) is the set of attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviors shared by a group of people, but different for each individual, communicated from one generation to the next.

According Berry et al. (1992) culture has different meanings in various cultures. However, culture can be referred to in ways that it touches on aspects of life. These aspects include general characteristics such as: 1) food and clothing, 2) housing and technology, 3) economy and transportation, 4) individual and family activities, 5) community and government, 6) welfare, 7) religion, 8) science 9) sex and 10) life-cycle.


Acculturation refers to the process in which migrant populations adjust and adapt to the country they migrate to (this is also referred to as the host country). Assimilation is the acculturation strategy where individuals devalue maintenance of their own culture and interact exclusively with members of the host society (Sam, 2000). Whereas on the other hand, separation is a strategy in which individuals place a higher value on maintenance of one’s original home culture and minimal interaction with the host culture (Sam, 2000). Integration is the most optimal strategy as individuals have a positive attitude toward maintaining one’s cultural heritage as well as with members of the host culture (Sam, 2000). Lastly, marginalization involves the devaluing of or rejection of one’s original culture along with avoiding interaction with members of the host culture (Sam, 2000).

Refugees in Greece

Since 2015, 1,010,000 refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan have arrived in Greece by sea as an intermittent residence on route to mainly Sweden or Germany applying for asylum (UNHCR, European, Stability Initiative & UNICEF, 2015).   It is estimated that there are 63.5 million refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people across the world (UNHCR, 2016). Syria and Afghanistan account for half of the child refugees under protection of the UN refugee agency (Smith, 2016).

Educators and Mental Health Supervisors

Mental health professionals must be up to date with their knowledge and skills on multicultural assessment and intervention which include the following four elements: 1) recognize cultural diversity, 2) understand the role that culture and ethnicity/ race play in the socio-psychological and economical development of ethnic and culturally diverse populations,

3) understand that socioeconomic and political factors significantly impact the psychosocial, political, and economic development of ethnic and culturally diverse groups,

4) help clients to understand/ maintain/ resolve their own sociocultural identification; and understand the interaction of culture, gender, and sexual orientation on behavior and needs (APA, 1990) ACA Code of Ethics (2014).

Supervisors of mental health professionals and the multicultural counselor and/ or educator must adhere to these ethics and guidelines, so that the training of competent multicultural counselors can occur. In regards to supervision, there are two important areas in which multicultural differences play an essential role in supervision. These two areas are: 1) the building of trust and working alliance, 2) the evaluation of the supervisee’s competency and ability (Ladany, Brittan-Powell, & Pannu, 1997; Lopez, 1997).


American Counseling Association. (2014). ACA Code of Ethics: U.S.A.: Author.

American Psychological Association (1990). APA Guidelines from Providers of Psychological Services to Ethnic, Linguistic, and Culturally Diverse Populations. U.S.A.: Author.

Berry, J. W., Poortinga, Y.H., Segall, M.H., & Dasen, P.R. (1992). Cross-cultural psychology: Research and applications. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.

Edwards, A. (2016). Global forced displacement reaches record high. Retrieved from UNHCR website: 

Ladany, N., Brittan-Powell, C.S., & Pannu, R.K. (1997). The influence of supervisory racial matching on the supervisory working supervisee multicultural alliance and competence. Counselor Education and Supervision, 36, 284-302.

Matsumoto, D . (2000). Culture and psychology people around the world. California: Wadsworth.

McLeod, S. (2007). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Retrieved from Simple Psychology website:

Murray, D. (2015). UNHCR says most Syrians arriving to Greece are students. Retrieved from UNHCR website:

Pope-Davis, D.B., Coleman, H. (1997). Multicultural counseling competencies, London: Sage Publications.

Sam, D.L. (2000). Acculturation and psychological well-being among immigrant adolescents in Finland. Journal of Adolescent Research, 15, 4, 446-469.

Smith, J. (2016). Europe is failing to help a generation of traumatized children. Retrieved from:

Sue, D., Sue, D.W., Sue, S. (2003). Understanding abnormal behavior (Seventh Edition). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

UNICEF (2016, April 6). UNICEF urges full hearings for refugee and migrant children stranded in Greece. Retrieved from: