Community Interest Company

We became a Community Interest Company so we could offer something back to our community.

Our first project was to set up the 'Strong Hearts' group in May 2019.

The need for this intervention was specifically designed to meet the needs of the resettled Syrians in Lancashire. This programme was designed by Essere Therapies following consultation with the women from the families based in Nelson and professionals already working with them and on information gained from the training on working with asylum seekers and refugees offered by ‘Freedom from Torture’ and hosted by the LCC Resettlement Team.

We established a committed group of between 7 and 12 women of varying ages, who attend on a weekly basis, some with their children. Attendance is optional on a weekly basis; a process of choice which is powerful in itself, particularly to those who have experienced oppression, fear and living in a system that renders the possibility of choice very limited.

The first part of our process was to establish an environment in which the women could feel safe, relaxed and able to drop some of their defences. With compassion and care, we provided a predictable, routined experience with nurturing care, warmth and welcome. As time went by and the women became familiar with the environment, the routine and the expectations within the group, we observed a ‘softening’ in their presentations.

Research describes that a reaction to trauma is the body shutting off to feelings – emotional and physical, as if the body and the head become disconnected. Carrying out activities that are repetitive helps with physiological and emotional regulation; sewing, knitting, crocheting and colouring all provide this regulating, repetitive experience. Through our observation of the group process it became clear that crafting (sewing in particular) brought the group together. Many women had significant skills in this area and were keen to use them to produce useful items and to support other group members who wanted to learn. It was apparent that crafting brought a productive energy to the group and gave individuals a sense of purpose and a group focus. As well as supporting connection between the rational and emotional parts of the brain, these crafting activities have led to far more attuned interactions within the group including a sense of connection, positive shared experience and joyfulness. Organically, the women have made this an essential part of their wellbeing group experience – the activity that holds the group together and that individuals join, leave and re-join according to their mood, physical wellness and desire to participate in the other activities on offer.

It soon became clear that child care was a key provision needed to enable the group to form, relax and engage. We therefore recruited a highly competent Nursery Nurse to play with and care for the children who come to the group with their mothers. Her engagement has led to a dramatic change in the behaviour and presentation of the children. Instead of struggling to manage their relationships with each other, they now engage in productive play and activities. We see how their language skills are developing and support this by including singing and rhymes in their activities. The women have noted the difference in the children and enjoy watching them engaging with the play opportunities provided. At times, the women go over to join in or talk to Emma (the Nursery Nurse) about their children and what they are doing. This is clearly a highly beneficial provision within the group and we would like to extend this into specific mother and child play/ESOL classes in the future.

The women have been instrumental in deciding on the content of the group sessions as described. Our observations have informed the provision, as has the direct input from the women. They continue to want to attend the English classes and we worked alongside LCC and community groups to provide this. Crafting is enjoyed as described and the women go to have a massage when they feel the need and feel able to accept this kind of care. They have chosen to organize, bring and share food some weeks, and to introduce music, dance and singing at times. Some weeks there is a feeling of celebration and others a much quieter feeling of the women drawing comfort and strength from each other.
From our position as observers as well as participants, it has felt that we have witnessed the re-creation of something culturally familiar and comforting; there is the sense that these women know how to be together in a supportive and productive community and they have taken the opportunity provided in this group to re-create a version of this that they can come back to each week. Perhaps they have been able to regain some more of their sense of identity in a world that they describe as experiencing as confusing and hard to access at times.

The sharing of skills, fun and culture within the group seems to have increased the feeling of connection and relationship between the Syrian women themselves and also between them and the English women facilitating the group and activities. The women have also reported that they are meeting more in small groups outside the group, to drink coffee and gossip. The older women have become the ‘heart’ of the group, arriving early, setting up the sewing machines, making a start on their projects. This sense of purpose and use of skills will have engaged the part of the brain responsible for executive functioning; using this part of the brain is essential in creating feelings of competency, purposefulness and, therefore, self-esteem. As a result of the experience of these emotions, the women have spontaneously created a logo and name for the group; ‘Strong Hearts’. Often, when they arrive or leave and we ask how they are or wish them well, they respond by touching their chest with their fists and saying with a smile, ‘Strong Hearts’.

We feel that the experience of the offer (and partaking in) massage has been fundamental in the success of the group. Research describes how following trauma experiences people can develop disruptive physical reactions to present day experiences; i.e. the body continues to react as if there is a serious threat way after the threats have passed and muscles contract to protect the body from injury in response to non-threatening, every day experiences. Massage is needed to remind the body that it is safe to let the muscles loosen. The women in the group talk to us about the physical problems they are experiencing, the pain and discomfort they continue to experience despite visits to their doctors. Through the experience of massage they gain some physical relief from their symptoms, emotional connection through nurturing touch, comfort and relaxation. Our masseuse, Paula, has experienced many moments of deep emotional connection with the women, frequently when no verbal communication has taken place. Following a massage some of the women just sit with Paula and hold her hand, their gaze communicating more of their pain and gratitude than their words ever could.

We have been keen to offer a yoga/physical movement session in addition to the existing group activities as research suggests that yoga practice (in particular) over a ten-week period can reduce symptoms of PTSD. Yoga and dance help to connect mind and body in the same way as the rhythmic, repetitive activities discussed above. Yoga has the additional aspects of breath work and mindfulness – both evidenced to facilitate recovery from trauma. We have now secured funding to offer four sessions of yoga and hope to offer more of these in the future.
The women have now started to talk about their emotional experiences and their symptoms of anxiety and depression. There is a feeling that they are confused and isolated in this and that they do not understand their emotional lives. They are benefitting from conversations explaining that their emotional experiences are understandable (indeed predictable) responses to their experiences of loss, fear and transition. Their sharing of experience is helping to alleviate some of the confusion and isolation they feel and increase the conversation on the topic between them.

As described, we have learned from the individual women what they feel they like and need in terms of support and activity within the group. We provide practical support in terms of helping to book and organise attendance of appointments, resolving issues with benefits, explaining letters from schools and helping them gain access to interpreting services where needed. We have also had discussions about their engagement with the wider community. We have introduced certain women to groups in the local area providing similar activities to those we provide and they enjoy, and have accompanied them to make initial introductions. However, via this experience, we have seen that often the women find new groups overwhelming, difficult to access and therefore not very enjoyable. It was clear that the language difficulties and possibly shyness made it very difficult for them and they were quickly put off. One of the aims of our project is to enable women to attend and enjoy established community groups. We recognise that there are barriers to this and that we need to continue to work on this with the women and the providers of the groups. In terms of our own well-being group, our intention in the longer term is that we access funding from other sources to enable it to continue running until the women and volunteers feel able and confident in running it themselves.

We have the sense that the women are now ready for some more topic specific sessions and/or group work. This might be along the lines of supporting their children’s well- being and integration, or increasing their own understanding of the impacts of their life experiences on their, and their families, health and well-being. Our aim is to look for funding outside of LCC for this work. Although we haven’t used the services of an interpreter so far we think that this would be necessary for any group sessions. It has been a challenge to talk in any depth about sensitive issues such as anxiety, depression and the impact of trauma with the language limitations that exist.

Feedback was collected via a sheet on which the women could select a facial expression to depict their experience of the group. 100% of the feedback given is ‘happy’, ‘very happy’. Although now, often, someone will say, ‘Happy but sad for my family’. Grief for family members elsewhere is forever present for these women.