Humanitarian ConcernsPractice

IFS on the Front Lines: Supporting Refugee Women and Their Children in the Middle East

Since 2011, approximately three million Syrian refugees have sought refuge in Jordan and Lebanon. We bring you news of the healing, mother-focused “Leyla Projekt.”

Read in Arabic: على الخطوط الأمامية: دعم النساء اللاجئات وأطفالهن في الشرق الأوسط

Currently, tens of thousands of severely marginalized Syrian refugees are living in terrible conditions in poor suburbs in Amman, Jordan and Beirut, Lebanon. The places are often referred to as “camps.” But the camp as reality is just one iteration among many, of this extreme humanitarian crisis. Lebanon has its own urban version of the refugee accommodation and survival crisis. The Leyla Projekt aims to alleviate some of the suffering refugees in these camps are facing. Recently, a range of socio-political and economic factors have all combined to shine a spotlight on longstanding problems in Lebanon and beyond. With an already profound refugee crisis, the 2020 explosion at the Port of Beirut caused further devastation. By no means least, the Lebanese currency (Lira), relative to the US dollar has seen a dramatic drop. For the local Lebanese population, there is the memory of Syrian occupation in recent decades, which only officially ended in 2005. Meanwhile, Syrian refugees in Lebanon are battling issues around displacement, social dislocation, and daily survival. In short, there are serious humanitarian issues requiring support.

The Leyla Projekt offers support to Syrian refugee mothers and kids, and works to connect them with Lebanese mothers and educators. These two national populations have usually been at odds. The Projekt allows them to sit in a circle and create a constructive, healing dialogue to address cultural and legacy burdens, and deal with deep seated fears and misunderstandings. The therapeutic grassroots work utilizes the principles of IFS, allowing individuals to see their anger, resentment, and mistrust as one version of their own protectors.

The work of the Projekt started specifically with mothers. When asked why they start there, Dr. Chady Hanna Rahmé, Director of the Leyla Projeckt’s partner organization, Ithraa, Lebanon, observed that mothers are important for many reasons, but critically “because many of the initial problems in our culture are due to women being marginalized—so elevating them now is an important part of the healing process.’ Rahmé noted that, especially within the culture of these refugee camps, ‘women are able to provide more nurturing and equitable leadership and they often have more ready access to compassion, so starting with mothers is just practical.’

From Rahmé’s perspective, both local Lebanese mothers and Syrian refugee mothers are often traumatized and carry the bulk of the emotional burden. He is passionate about the need to empower them for two further reasons: first, because research encourages working through mothers to reach children and the whole family; second, because resources for children—including psychotherapeutic help— are significantly improved when mothers are present. Thus, the Leyla Projekt acts as a hub of service delivery in an effort to ensure that children receive the most benefit from the services.

Currently, a team of IFS-trained Trauma Advisors is working with Syrian and Lebanese mothers to facilitate groups of approximately 100 women (50 in Lebanon and 50 in Jordan) who meet every second week, for ten weeks. The basic concepts of IFS are introduced in a workshop fashion. Large-group bonding exercises are combined with small-group work at tables, incorporating focused and intimate conversations for the mothers. Additionally, smaller groups meet on alternate weeks to further deepen and consolidate the work, using elements of one-to-one counselling, artwork, parenting assistance, gratitude exercises, trauma processing and group bonding to deepen the bond between the women, bring the children into the space, and eventually, include husbands for deeper integration and healing.

At the culmination of the ten-week course, there is a social occasion with food and games. Beyond this party finish, there is ongoing work with more group support, IFS therapy, and artwork. The Projekt started in July 2021 with the first phase expected to end in late 2022.  Partners across Lebanon, Jordan and Germany are working to ensure this program continues. As part of that, mothers who were in the first cohort are being trained to be trauma advisors for future mother cohorts. This will ensure the ongoing provision of trauma processing, IFS, and support from local providers who have lived experience and cultural expertise in the field.

The work is considered to still be experimental. Chady Hanna Rahmé notes, however, that improvements can be seen already.

The Leyla Projekt was born out of a close collaboration of a few individuals, whose interactions eventually gave rise to the project. Chady Hanna Rahmé, PhD, Professor of Psychology and Philosophy at Notre Dame University and Director of Ithraa-Lebanon, had been working with Sameer and Mary Petro, Directors of Ithraa-Jordan. He met Ann-Katrin Bockmann, PhD, IFS trained Psychologist at University of Hildesheim and Tom Holmes, PhD, an USA-based IFS-trained therapist. These conversations then involved Michael Borkowski, a theologist, therapist and IFS practitioner running the Refugee Housing of the Christian community “Am Döhrener Turm.” Am Döhrener Turm launched and has taken up the organization of the Leyla Projekt.

More can be learned here: The Leyla Projekt

You can also find information about the Leyla Projekt via The Ithraa Center

Note: The word Leyla is a common female name in the Arab world. It means night, conjures images of depth and beauty, and positively reflects hope in the middle of the darkness this region is currently encountering.

A Closer Look at the Actual Program and How it Functions

Participants in the Leyla Projekt started a training on social emotional needs (also known as relational needs), where they identify their different emotions and feel them in their bodies. Participants learn that protectors are activated when their emotional needs are not met.

At this stage, the Inner Active Cards, introduced to the Ithraa team by Tom Holmes, provided an effective way for the mothers to connect to their Parts, helping them establish relationships with both their protectors and exiles.

Getting to know their protectors through IFS meditation exercises helped the mothers in their relationships with their children. This shows in the story of Hadeel, a 23-year-old mother of three children. One of Hadeel’s protectors insisted that hitting children was the only way to establish order in the household. Taking some distance from this protector made her realize its biggest fear, which is losing control. The protector showed her a woman left out, within the chaos of war, avoiding bullets, afraid of losing her life and her children’s lives. Once the good intention of this protector was acknowledged, it managed to step back, giving space for compassion and care. Her children could be treated with firmness, while seeing the caring love of their mother and also their father. No need for violence to protect the family from the chaos of war.

Self was introduced to the workshop participants through the concept of the Inner Diamond: the Self that could get covered up with dust, but can never be destroyed. Guided meditation exercises helped mothers get back their shining light, through the experience of Self.

Using Mindful Art, participants meditated on the 8C qualities of Self and drew what each meant to them. The mothers were then able to be more Self-led in their daily interactions with their family members. They were able to see the dynamics at home more clearly and adjust their behavior accordingly. Realizing where their burdens come from and that it’s their responsibility to stop this cycle, one mother said: “This cycle is going to stop here, I’m not going to pass it down to my son.”

Hanin, a 25-year-old mother who has experienced healing by “being in Self,” gave her coach the following feedback: “My protector looked like a man who was forbidding me from being caring. This protector was too afraid to remember the past, where we lost our house during the war. It didn‘t want to access the overwhelming feeling of losing everything. Once I realized that Self cannot be destroyed, I was able to experience tenderness and emotions again. The war could destroy many things: houses, possessions, clothes… But nothing can take away my center.  The experience of Self being always there brought healing to my heart.”

The training included group discussions, guided meditations, and one-to-one IFS sessions that helped the mothers get deeper into their personal challenges.

At the end of the training, all participants received a certificate of attendance, which were approved in Jordan by the Ministry of Labour. This gave them a sense of empowerment; one of the participants said that it was her first certificate ever.

The Leyla Projekt is presented at a 2022 IFS Conference workshop by Mary Petro, Ann-Katrin Bockmann, and Samat Azzi Rahmé, “Exiled Mothers: The [Legacy] Burdens   of Women in the Arab World and their impact.”


Shaun Dempsey, PhD is Deputy Editor of PARTS & SELF, a Level 3 Certified IFS therapist and Clinical Psychologist in Australia

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  • Shaun Dempsey

    Shaun Dempsey, PhD, is Deputy Editor of PARTS & SELF, a Level 3 Certified IFS therapist and Clinical Psychologist in Australia.

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