Migration Matters: Mental Health in the Field

Story by Nadia Kalinchuk, National Headquarters, RFL Outreach Coordinator and Caseworker for the Americas, Migration Focal Point

This week, the blog has highlighted migration in the Americas, specifically tapping into my experiences during field visits to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. The stories from the field give context to the work the Red Cross does to provide care for others. However, we often don’t talk about the elephant in the room – our humanity, reactions and need for self-care. The size of the problems, the needs that one faces in the field, and the passion we have to make a difference all have a psychological impact. In this blog, I would like to take the opportunity to bring together migration field work and self-care perspectives and strategies. I would like to humbly admit that I am not a guru and that I, myself, struggle with self-care, but this lack of perfection will grant us the opportunity to discuss the challenges to self-care more frankly.

The context: migration field work in the Americas

Since May 2014, there have been news reports, meetings, press conferences, meetings, teleconferences, meetings, action alerts, meetings, emails upon emails and, oh, did I mention meetings? There were many of all these things – all about migration. But the work didn’t start in May. Rather, the issue of migration is long-standing and transcends many borders. The catalyst for the added attention to migration in the region came to light during the time when unaccompanied children were coming to the US at a rate of over 300 a day. During this time, many stories and reports were launched, each with tragic stories attached. It became impossible to read the news without thinking that there should be a trigger warning attached to each segment.

Similarly, field visits to the border and the Northern Triangle provided exposure to people with great needs, large and complex problems within even more complicated contexts. Even as I grapple with situations within the confines of an office, close to home, it still comes with a unique set of challenges. I bring up the context because context will always impact a worker’s response.

For some humanitarian workers, their context is the frontline of a conflict or international disaster. The mere fact that, often times, there is isolation, lack of familial contact, and an inability to physically separate oneself from the situation, makes these critical incidents for the affected population and the responding worker. Each context is different and cannot be oversimplified into a mechanical, universal, response.


International response has not always been effective in addressing the needs of staff and volunteers. Many reports have found that despite the adventurous disposition of many aid workers, there is a high percentage of depression and substance abuse, yet debriefs can be seen as impractical, out of touch, or retraumatizing.

Similarly, some would argue that self-care is only part of the puzzle, and that international organizations should shoulder some of the responsibility in providing support for workers. Regardless, the narrative of humanitarian work would have us believe that caring for others, including the worker, is fundamental, making the investment of time and effort into a resilient workforce, a moral imperative. This perspective just lays the ground for discussing strategies.


In addition to organizational strategies (which is another blog for another time) I have found it important to build my own coping strategies. Here are a few that I came up with. They worked for me. They are not comprehensive. They may work for some, but not others. And feel free to share your own in the comment section.

1. Assess my reality before I deploy. My reality includes leaving a family at home, working with children, having contact with people who look like me, in fact, could be family, experiencing violence, fleeing violence and facing uncertainty. There is obviously much more to this, but just taking a moment to breathe and acknowledge my own challenges and the realities ahead helped.

2. Connect, connect, connect. I reach out to people, mostly my spouse and friends from work, when I am getting ready to visit the field. My spouse knows I need time to talk out my anxieties, but he also holds me accountable to unplugging the computers and cell phone when I am at home. We take time to talk, spend time with the family and friends, go to yoga, laugh. Seriously though, laughter should have its own category.

3. Don’t compare yourself with others or take yourself too seriously. It is easy to come back from a field visit and say things like, “well, yeah…that is bad, but I have no room to complain after what I saw.”  I am allowed to be human and complain about silly things if I see fit. I am not a martyr or a saint. Yes, you gain perspective in all of life’s experiences, but we all have needs even in light of great suffering. And again, laugh, especially at yourself.

4. Process. I just read that the blogosphere has helped in the self-care of humanitarian workers. How about that? It helps to feel connected. One of the biggest risks to depression, anxiety and substance abuse is the feeling of isolation.

5. Have a plan. I like to build a highly unrealistic self-care plan each visit. I know I might not get to all of it while I am in the field, but the intentions and the creation of the plan have put my mind in a place to commit to myself, my care. One of the key things I sort out before I leave is a call schedule for me and my family. Then, I tell my colleagues when I get there that I have a standing appointment at XX hour and I go call my family at that time.

These are a few tips, but I welcome yours! What works for you? What has been a challenge? I want to know and I want to open up discussion on how to build a resilient workforce. Have a great weekend and be sure to unplug!

Migration Matters: El Modulo in Corinto, a Mission Moment

Story by Nadia Kalinchuk, National Headquarters, RFL Outreach Coordinator and Caseworker for the Americas, Migration Focal Point

It is difficult to talk about the field visit to Corinto, not for lack of words or excitement, but because it was an experience that shaped me.  At the American Red Cross, we call these experiences “Mission Moments.”  We try to capture them, share them with others and reflect back on them when the days seem long and unrelenting.  These moments foster camaraderie, uniting Red Crossers globally, erasing geographical borders, indelibly linking us to what it means to be a humanitarian. 

During my field visit, I traveled with Mauricio and Hansel from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation in Honduras to Corinto, a small town on the border between Guatemala and Honduras. There, we went to the Modulo de Atencíon a Personas Migrantes, which has been responding to the needs of returning migrants for the past two years.  We met a team of young volunteers from the Cruz Roja Hondureña who had traveled from Puerto Cortes, an approximately one hour trip from Corinto. While we waited for the buses of migrants to arrive, I got to know the police stationed at the border, the young volunteers, and their leader from the Cruz Roja Hondureña, Mauricio.

I learned that between January and July, the Modulo received double the number of migrants than the year before. Mauricio showed me a picture of the day they received twelve buses of migrants, each one containing forty-five persons. He explained that while their response is critical, the needs are greater because the Modulo is the only service available to returning migrants in Corinto.

I heard the same from the police – numbers of returned migrants are high. They shared their gratitude for the Red Cross presence in this remote border town. One officer said that it is heartbreaking for him to hear from the families traveling with children that they have nowhere to go and fear the gangs and violence that meet them upon their return home. Ellos son mis paisanos. ¿Qué les digo? (They are my fellow countrymen. What do I tell them?)

We were told a bus was on the way, and I gathered with the volunteers to get ready for its arrival. While we waited, we talked and ate lychee. I found out that the volunteers are all between nineteen and twenty-three years old. Perhaps this question came from not being the most ambitious 19-year-old, but I asked them what made them wake up so early to come to the Modulo. They said that the people coming back are part of their community. Their words reflected a “why wouldn't we” attitude. The night before, I had learned from Mauricio that the volunteers are so committed to the service that they often stay through the night if a bus comes late.

As the bus approached, the volunteers sprang into action to help the passengers who have been on the road for hours traveling from Mexico. The returning migrants were welcomed by all at the Modulo. When they came in, they were given an orientation to space, critical information on buses departing from Corinto, and hygiene kits with water, toilet paper, snacks, and other necessities.

The migrants then waited their turn to make calls home to their family members. Those who missed the orientation from the volunteers at the door had the opportunity to look over information about the buses. Migrants could also access first aid services, as dehydration and headaches are common.

As I watched the phone call area, I noticed some migrants supporting one another through their disappointment when they were unable to reach their families. Those who had contacted their loved ones beamed with joy after hearing a familiar voice. Even those who were unable to contact their family were comforted by the services provided at the Modulo. I saw the ease restored in their faces when they saw the Red Cross. I saw the volunteers, driven by the humanitarian mission to assist their communities. I saw some of the realities of migration in Corinto.

In less than an hour, the bus full of migrants had left the Modulo. As we leave, I noticed many of them walking down the street toward other buses that would carry them home or elsewhere.

Reflecting back on this experience, I am thankful to Mauricio of the ICRC delegation of Honduras and Mauricio of the Cruz Roja Hondureña for the hospitality, the many colleagues who made this possible, but most thankful to the people we serve every day all around the world – thank you for teaching me and grounding me in my mission.  

Migration Matters: We are here

Panoramic view - El Carmen, Guatemala

Panoramic view - El Carmen, Guatemala

Story by Nadia Kalinchuk, American Red Cross, National Headquarters, Restoring Family Links Outreach Coordinator and Caseworker for the Americas, Migration Focal Point

When I left Quetzaltenango in the early morning hours, I was in a cool mountain climate. When I wake, I am instantly covered in a mist of sweat, hot and slightly disoriented.  I am in El Carmen, at the border, between Guatemala and Mexico.  Hector, the migration focal point and Restoring Family Links lead in Guatemala, tells me that I will instantly feel the heat, and I do.  We enter the reception area, which is nestled between street vendors and bodegas.  The map on the wall tells me where I am and I am instantly comforted.

Hector introduces me to the lead volunteer who welcomes migrants who are deported to Guatemala from Mexico.  The Puesto de Atencíon is a collaboration between the Cruz Roja Guatemalteca and the ICRC delegation of Guatemala.  The bus from Mexico came through with a group of migrants. Another volunteer down the road had boarded the bus to inform them of the services provided at the Puesto de Atencíon.  We anticipated the group will come through in a bit to make a call home to their loved ones, or simply use the restroom and get a snack before moving forward.  

When the group arrives they line up to get coffee and make a phone call. Some sit on the seats in the reception area to put the shoelaces back on their shoes.  Hector welcomes them and engages in casual banter while I try my hand at serving snacks.  A younger migrant who was traveling with his uncle is disgruntled with him, complaining that he had recommended that he cut his shoelaces when they were in detention in Mexico.  He is unhappy at the prospect of walking without his laces.  His uncle relents and goes off to buy a new set of laces.  The street is full of bodegas that cater to migrants, selling backpacks, shoelaces, disposable phones and water.

When his uncle gets back, they share their story.  The three, uncle, nephew and the friend of the nephew, had traveled together and were apprehended by authorities in Mexico.  They had been working there, planning to stay for a while until they could save the money to move onward to the United States. The nephew says his mom and brother live there. He talks about the influence of gangs and violence in Guatemala, expressing anger and frustration that he had no family left in Guatemala.  He is charging his phone as they wait to place a call. The group jokes and discusses the options ahead of them – to stay in Guatemala or go to Mexico by night.  They turn to the map to look at where they are.

“Estamos aquí.” The map on the wall shows where they are and the roads that lie ahead and behind them.  It is a seemingly small, common action – looking at a map.  Nonetheless, it is a critical piece of the puzzle.  

When returned to their country of origin, migrants are often uninformed of where they are being taken, have no idea as to how to communicate where they are to their family, and are more vulnerable to exploitation when they are left disoriented and unaware.  The stories of disorientation ring together like a chorus –  a father lost in the desert, children unable to call home or know when they can place the next call to their family, a young boy trafficked after being separated from his group, a young woman unaware of where to go for help in the middle of the night, when the coyote who is traveling with her tries to enter her room.  These are just some of the vulnerabilities migrants face when they do not know where they are.  

As I witnessed in El Salvador, Honduras and now Guatemala - globally, the Red Cross provides the critical humanitarian link that orients refugees, internally displaced persons and migrants.  As a trusted partner in the community, the Red Cross receives people, providing respite and important information to assist in maintaining and restoring family connection.  The work is not done by maps or phone calls alone, but by the people who engage in the humanitarian principles to provide service in a neutral and impartial manner to all who are in need. That is but one way we can say, “we are here.”

Migration Matters: Learning the Language

September 15th to October 15th is National Hispanic Heritage Month. Last week, Central American nations celebrated their independence. This week, in recognition of these celebrations and the regional work between the US and Central America on migration, the Restoring Family Links Blog will be hosting a five-part series on general issues of migration within the Americas. Today’s story is contributed by Nadia Kalinchuk, Restoring Family Links Outreach Coordinator, Caseworker for the Americas and Migration Focal Point, who recently returned from travel to the Northern Triangle – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

When I landed in San Salvador, I felt adequately prepared for the ten days ahead that would take me through the Northern Triangle of Central America, an area most recently garnering international attention due to the number of unaccompanied children leaving their homes with the goal of coming to the US. However, during my trip, I realized that the language in which I discussed the topic of the “recent humanitarian crisis along the border” needed re-examining. As the opening blog for a series on migration, it is extremely important to “re-frame” the language of borders and immigration.

On Borders

Within the US, the discussion on borders tends to focus on its own borders. Within this context, the discussion gets homogenized so that there is only the distinction of a US and Mexico border.  In reality, people are coming from countries south, east and west of Mexico and crossing many borders before then.  Migration impacts many communities, communities that are along the route as well as sending countries.  It is invaluable to take into consideration the entire scope of migration as a region because it tells a bigger, more robust, story. 

Deportados, Repatriados, y Retornados

The ways in which returning migrants are viewed is extremely shaped by the language used to label and describe them. While in San Salvador, my Red Cross colleagues and I sat down with Mr. César Ríos of the Instituto Salvadoreño del Migrante. As we spoke, I used the term deportados to refer to the returned migrants. Ríos quickly took the opportunity to explain the local discourse. He said that the term deportado has come to mean that the migrant is a criminal or has committed a criminal act and was thus deported.

The term has similar connotations to the use of the term “illegal” in the United States, often used to refer to people who come across the border undocumented. Labels such as deportados and “illegal” reduce people to actions and strip away their humanity by inferring criminal behavior. Using this language reinforces approaches to immigration issues by governments and communities that ignore the basic human needs of undocumented migrants.

Similarly, Ríos stated that the term, repatriado, or repatriated, does not adequately describe the struggles returning migrants face in integrating back into their communities, homes, and families.  Many returnees worked abroad to support their families back home. Once they return, they can be seen as a burden for the family to support.

This is further complicated if the migrant comes back after suffering a severe injury, which can happen if they are thrown from the train, La Bestia. While the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Red Cross Societies in the Northern Triangle provide support to these migrants by providing prosthetics, there remains stigma against the disabled and finding a job in nations with high rates of poverty and unemployment becomes exceedingly difficult. When the reason for migration includes economic opportunity, this can be particularly challenging to both the family and the migrant.

As such, the community serving and advocating for migrant rights often chooses to use the term retornado to describe the migrant’s return. Retornado describes the return of the migrant without putting any emphasis on the process in which they were returned.  It adds a dimension of humanity which the other terms lack.

No matter where you go, whether in the US, Central America, or pretty much everywhere else, the language used to discuss borders and immigration often reflects political agendas. Being a part of the Red Cross Movement, I have had the opportunity to apply the Fundamental Principles of neutrality and humanity to this language – looking at how the very words we use to discuss migration often subjects us to political positions, and how we can alter those words to insure that the humanity of migrants is at the forefront of the conversation.

On Women and Families: Making the Connection

Story by Nadia Kalinchuk, National Headquarters, Outreach Coordinator and Caseworker for the Americas

March 8th marked International Women’s Day, next week is women’s studies week, and this month we celebrate women’s history.  With these days and weeks that make up a month on my mind, I have had time to reflect on the work of reconnecting families and the role of women, girls and migration. 

In the last few weeks, two reports came out about unaccompanied minors crossing the border into the US. Both provide perspectives to a phenomenon that has been unfolding since 2011: the surge of unaccompanied minors.  A report by Kids In Need of Defense (KIND) examines the complex legal system the minors encounter once they are in custody.  The second UNHCR report investigates the reasons for migration by interviewing 400 unaccompanied minors.  Through these interviews with minors from El Salvador, Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala, the report reveals that children are fleeing violence and harm involving both interpersonal and criminal actors.  With projections of unaccompanied minors reaching as high as 60,000 this year, the importance of these issues cannot garner enough attention.     .

Picture of Elsy Nohelia Ayala from "More Invisible and More Vulnerable" report by Global Press Journal.

Picture of Elsy Nohelia Ayala from "More Invisible and More Vulnerable" report by Global Press Journal.

Upon reading more on women and migration, I stumbled onto this anecdote from a series examining migration: “Elsy Nohelia Ayala, 24, begins to cry when she realizes she forgot photos of her two children when she left her home in Honduras headed for the U.S. Ayala did not want to leave her children, but her mother asked her to accompany her brother in fleeing the country after gang members threatened to kill him.” 

To me this story clearly reflects the choices faced by women and girls fleeing violence and the mothers who encourage their children to leave.  These choices are not without sacrifice or anguish, and in many circumstances, a family matriarch is compelling the family to stay together or trying to find the safest way for her children to escape a dangerous situation. 

In my daily life as a mother raising two daughters, I find that there is a need to not only discuss how these issues of migration and protection affect women and girls, but to also link these discussions to actions that improve outcomes. Yesterday, during the launch of the report of the unaccompanied minor, I sat in a room full of women.  It was a comment that my male colleague made note of, “always so many women at these events.”  I looked behind me and agreed, as I saw women peeling off their coats and multipurpose bags, intended to carry laptops, diapers and wipes.  Many, if not all of the women in the room, were and are working for the protection of the child.  This is an action they commit to everyday, improving the lives and outcomes of children, advocating for their legal rights as well as access to important psychosocial support.  Their names may never be heard on the news, and they may never receive recognition, but they do what they can daily to improve the outcomes of unaccompanied children.

On this international women’s day, I celebrate the strength of women and girls trying to find safety, those working to keep their families together and the women advocating for the social support and understanding needed to help unaccompanied and separated children.