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Interview with Kara Davey

Ambrose Musiyiwa, October 12, 2010

Last year, trainee clinical psychologist Kara Davey worked with NHS ASSIST Service, one of the few medical practices in the United Kingdom that provides primary health care services exclusively to asylum seekers, some of whom are victims of torture. This year she helped organize the "Being Heard: Human Rights and Asylum" conference that took place at the University of Leicester in September. Currently, she is researching the effect that supporting asylum seekers and refugees has on individuals who provide that support. 

Ambrose Musiyiwa: How would you explain the research you are conducting at present? 

Kara Davey: My research is designed to explore what positive and negative emotional responses are evoked in members of staff who work for charities or voluntary organizations that provide practical support and advice to asylum seekers and/or refugees. For example, I am interested in how much stress is felt by staff as a result of their work, how this stress affects them and how they cope with the stress they experience. 

I am also interested in whether staff members feel that the work has improved them, in any way, as individuals. For example, do they feel more resilient as individuals? Are they more appreciative of life? And so on. 

AM: How is the research progressing? 

KD: I have already conducted some interviews and asked the interviewees to complete a questionnaire pack for me. They then agreed to help me amend my questionnaires to make them as relevant as possible for members of staff who support asylum seekers and refugees. I am now in the process of recruiting 100 participants to complete just the questionnaires, with the aim of comparing responses from individuals nationwide. 

AM: What motivated the research project? 

KD: I feel it is important to understand the emotional impact of providing support to asylum seekers and refugees because stress, coping and resilience all have important implications on personal well-being. I hope that my research will highlight a range of coping mechanisms that individuals have used to build their own personal resilience. 

Useful findings on coping gathered from this research may then be incorporated into a training package, which can be made available to charities and voluntary organizations nationwide. 

AM: As a clinical psychologist in training, how did your experiences when you worked with the NHS ASSIST Service affect you? 

KD: I found the role very rewarding but quite emotionally challenging at times, too. During my time at the ASSIST Service, I was struck by the great work that employees of the many organizations that I was liaising with were doing. I am not aware of how much support the employees themselves receive. I know that this probably varies largely, but I assume that often it is likely to be much less than the support therapists and mental health professionals receive—despite the fact that people who work with organizations that support refugees and asylum seekers hear about very difficult experiences and can sense some very strong emotions in those that they are supporting. 

This made me admire the resilience of individuals who work or volunteer in this sector, much like I admire the resilience of the individuals that I supported whilst working at the ASSIST Service. Consequently, I wanted to find out more about the positive and negative emotions that are evoked in these employees and volunteers, how they are affected by these emotions, how much support they receive and how they cope with the difficult aspects of their work. 

AM: As a researcher, what are some of the biggest challenges that you face? 

KD: I guess my biggest challenge is likely to be recruiting enough participants to be able to identify useful and reliable trends in the data. The more responses I receive the more I will be able to explore the effects of the smaller research questions I have, such as: Does length of time in the job affect how individuals respond emotionally to clients? Are there regional differences? Are responses different for those who support asylum seekers and those who support refugees?

Getting a large number of responses will also mean that I can be more confident of the effects found in relation to my three main research questions, as the data analysis will be more statistically reliable. The challenge in terms of recruiting enough participants is being able to get myself and my research known nationwide to encourage widespread participation, whilst also being realistic about the huge time restrictions I have due to needing to focus on all the other elements of my job to be able pass my training, too.

AM: How are you dealing with these challenges? 

KD: I plan to overcome these challenges by networking, appealing to organizations who have contacts that might be helpful for me and by attending a lot of team meetings across the country whilst on leave. 

AM: Earlier, you described your placement with the ASSIST Service as being "rewarding but quite emotionally challenging at times." Why is this? 

KD: Some of the asylum seekers that I had the pleasure of seeing regularly at the ASSIST Service didn't really have any other support networks in the U.K., so I wanted to do my best to help them. I sometimes experienced the roller-coaster ride of emotions with them, both in relation to how they felt from day to day and how they felt in relation to their asylum applications. 

I found the work emotionally challenging because the individuals I was supporting were in the U.K. because they needed a chance to move on and rebuild their life in safety and yet they were being forced into social isolation and often their applications for political asylum were being refused without a fair hearing, which was very frustrating. 

Hearing stories about what happened to people prior to their arriving in the U.K. was also shocking and incredibly sad. I was touched by how resilient the individuals I saw were, and they were also really grateful for the small amount of help that I was able to provide them with. 

I felt really pleased and relieved when some individuals received their status documents and we could begin to think about how they move on with their lives. These positive elements, amongst many others, made the work very rewarding. 

AM: What do you think should be done about the challenges asylum seekers face in the U.K.? 

KD: In my opinion, a lot of the asylum seekers who are in the U.K. are also victims of U.K. legislation, which is designed to limit applications and identify any small inconsistencies in people's stories. These inconsistencies are then picked up and held to indicate a "false" application. 

U.K. legislation is rarely sensitive to cultural differences and does not consider research highlighting how difficult it is to disclose traumatic material without first building a trusting relationship. It does not even consider research that documents how difficult it is to remember the details of very traumatic events. 

Asylum seekers also have no choice about where they live. They are not allowed to work and often have limited resources resulting in high levels of boredom, depression and social isolation, which can lead to a decreased sense of self-worth. 

AM: How should the U.K. deal with asylum seekers? 

KD: Asylum seekers should be treated with dignity and given a fair chance, the chance to tell their story, and to be treated like human beings. 

Research that has been conducted into the effects of trauma should be taken into consideration when looking at asylum applications. I also strongly believe that asylum seekers should be given the opportunity to work, for the reasons explained above, as well as to reduce social stigma. 

AM: If I work for an organization that supports refugees and/or asylum seekers and would like to take part in the research you are conducting, where do I begin? 

KD: The questionnaire pack is available online at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/XGQCW3C. Alternatively, you can email me at kld20@le.ac.uk for a paper version of the questionnaire pack or for more information.

Anyone who provides practical support to asylum seekers or refugees is eligible to take part, regardless of whether this support is during one-off consultations or ongoing casework.

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