Aid Workers on Wars’ Frontlines Find Resilience in Mindfulness Practice

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

A new program teaches humanitarian aid workers from the frontlines of the Syrian refugee crisis how to build resilience so they can better handle the intense stress of supporting others in desperate need of help. Aid workers’ responsibilities are extensive and challenging, including providing medical treatment, legal support, food and shelter. They perform all these tasks while being targets themselves. Attacks on aid workers continue to increase; in 2014, 3,000 aid workers were killed, injured, or kidnapped.

As a result of these stresses, a growing number of aid workers are experiencing trauma and mental health issues, and consequently leaving the field earlier: In a recent survey, 79 percent of of 754 aid staff said they had experienced such conditions, including anxiety, depression, panic attacks, PTSD, and alcoholism. One international medical aid organization reported that one-third of its staff drop out after just one assignment. And beneficiaries are receiving lower-quality care because of high staff turnover, with less-experienced and over-stressed aid workers.

Syrian aid workers from refugee crisis centers in Lebanon, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Jordan recently took part in a “contemplative-based resilience (CBR) training” to provide inner tools to help manage the intense stress of their work. This mindfulness training is extensive and challenging: aid workers learn new ways of responding to stress by sitting in silence and bringing awareness to their breath, body, emotions, and thoughts, and become more aware, balanced, and connected to their life and work. A key insight that all areas of the CBR program seek to reinforce is that the way we meet our stressors and the difficulties of life is an important determinant of our suffering and happiness. CBR also helps organizations reduce medical and insurance costs, minimize the loss of staff and institutional knowledge, and lower recruitment costs—a winning formula all around.

Source: Hugh Byrne, “Syrian Refugee Aid Workers Are Training in Mindfulness,” Greater Good, December 15, 2016,

Student Researcher: Joachim “Saya” Santos (San Francisco State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)