PROMISING PRACTICE
 

Traditional Embroidery as a Settlement Mental Health Modality with Arabic Speaking Refugee Women


QUICK FACTS

AUDIENCE   Settlement, social, and health service providers

POPULATION OF INTEREST   Immigrants and refugees, Arabic-speaking refugee women

LOCATION   Toronto, ON

THE NEED   With the influx of Syrian Refugees in 2016, Access Alliance was on the front line providing health and settlement services. Due to experiences of trauma and loss within the community, there became an urgent need for accessible mental health programs.

WHAT'S PROMISING   Access Alliance has successfully incorporated Expressive Arts in many settlement programs through the medium of traditional embroidery. Demonstrating an accessible and culturally relevant approach, this program models how art therapy can support the settlement and mental health of refugees and newcomer populations.

KEY TAKEAWAY   Combining expressive arts and settlement can be an incredibly helpful to support the mental health and well-being on newcomers to Canada. It is important to incorporate the skills of Settlement, Mental Health and Creative professionals in order to maximize the support for clients.


Traditional Embroidery as a Settlement Mental Health Modality with Arabic Speaking Refugee Women

 

Access Alliance has a long history of incorporating arts in its settlement and mental health programing. Arts based programs, ranging from choral singing, to dancing, to crafting, are used across the agency. Access Alliance’s diverse communities have bonded and benefited greatly from making art together. Our first structured Expressive Arts initiative reaches back to 2005 when we deliberately engaged art therapists in our trauma-informed care with refugee women who had experienced violence. Evaluation results indicated that this program contributed significantly in reducing both physical and emotional isolation, overcoming barriers in communication, as well as forging cross-cultural friendships and networks. Since then we have successfully incorporated Expressive Arts in many settlement programs across age, ethnicity and gender groups, helping countless refugees and immigrants overcome barriers.

With the influx of Syrian Refugees in 2016, Access Alliance was on the front-line providing health and settlement services. Due to experiences of trauma and loss within the community, there became an urgent need for accessible mental health programs. Clients had experienced stress related to death and loss of loved ones, war and violence as well as loss of their homes, homeland and personal items. In Canada, clients were also experiencing language barriers, lack of childcare, challenges with system navigation and social isolation. The combination of these stressors was leading to mental health impacts such as depression, anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Access Alliance answered the call using the evidence-based modality of Art Therapy and the medium of traditional embroidery. Demonstrating an accessible and culturally relevant approach, this program models how art therapy can support the settlement and mental health of refugees and newcomer populations.

Expressive arts is a modality that uses nonverbal language of art for personal growth, insight and transformation and is a means of connecting what is inside us – our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions – with our outer realities and life experiences.  It is based on the belief that art can help us understand who we are and enhance life through self-expression. It is not about the art therapist or facilitator imposing ideas or beliefs on participants – it is a process for participants to gently learn about themselves and come to conclusions with the facilitator or art therapist as a guide. The artwork should never be judged or compared, rather it should be celebrated as the self-expression of the person that created it.

Textile art was chosen as the creative medium for this group as it has been used traditionally in Syria for expression of identity, social status, secrets, and stories. Many women were taught embroidery at a young age and would embroider both clothing and household items such as bed covers, wall hangings, and pillowcases. It seemed to be a suitable outlet to support the women in the group to tell their stories. Furthermore, creating art with fiber has demonstrated psychological benefits, including the promotion of coping skills as well as the development of skills and mastery of the medium.

There were several aims of the Arabic women’s embroidery group including: helping participants build a sense of community and connection to one another; to foster a sense of connection to “home” through their embroidered artwork; encourage self-expression through textile making by telling visual stories about their lives and offering the chance for the participants to use embroidery to share their stories with people living in Canada.

The program is trauma informed, meaning that facilitators understand, recognize and respond to trauma in the group. Because we are working with refugees, we recognize that anyone in the group may have experienced trauma. We recognize participant disclosures may require the support of a social worker/mental health professional. We also ensure that the program is culturally informed. Meaning facilitators need to understand where the client is from, their culture and how that impacts their thought, behavior preferred type of art.

The mental health of the clients is supported through bringing the group together for social connection, and through self-expression. Through bringing in a settlement worker, we are able to address the causes of stress related to system navigation and access to services.

Combining expressive arts and settlement can be an incredibly helpful to support the mental health and well-being on newcomers to Canada. It is important to incorporate the skills of Settlement, Mental Health and Creative professionals in order to maximize the support for clients. Developing partnerships and working in a collaborative and interdisciplinary way is essential. Ensuring the program is accessible and free of barriers is necessary to ensure participation. This means providing interpretation, transportation, childcare and culturally relevant programming.

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