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Safe From War, Refugees Face Stress and Burnout

  • February 10, 2023
  • Mental Health
  • Poland, Ukraine
  • Yulia, a Ukranian refugee and psychologist leads a Ukranian women's group session at Salam Lab.

When 20-year-old Yaryna fled Ukraine in February 2022, driving her sister and family friends to Poland over three days in frigid temperatures, she had one goal: To bring everyone safely across the border. She did not know that her intense focus on that goal would be the first step to a debilitating burnout that threatened her own health and safety.

Yarnya in brown jacket..
Yaryna, who wanted to help everyone who reached out, needed help herself.

Once in Poland, Yaryna moved in with a relative and, within a day, had a full schedule of duties, including volunteer shifts at Salam Lab, an Americares partner that serves as an intervention, information and service center, providing practical help and psychological counseling to thousands of refugees. Yaryna was often the first contact for many refugees who had escaped war and violence. “I listened to these terrible stories of people who fled the country,” she says. “For many, I was the only person who spoke Ukrainian and could help them arrange a doctor’s appointment, find accommodation or help in other ways. They used to call me very often, even at night.”

“I felt I had a duty to support them, I felt responsible for them. I wanted to do it.”


She often worked 12-hour shifts.

School continued, too: Yaryna was writing her master’s thesis under pressure to hand it in July. “My [advisor] said a sentence that got right into my head: ‘If you want to help your country, you have to finish your studies,’” she says.

But responding to everyone’s needs but her own took a toll. First, Yaryna suffered ear infections, flu and exhaustion. At Salam Lab, psychologist Yulia saw what was happening and asked Yaryna to take a break, but the young woman refused. “Many volunteers do not feel their personal boundaries; they are ready to work beyond limits. This is destructive help,” says Yulia, who also fled Ukraine and works at Salam lab counseling refugees and, through video chats, women in Ukraine. Then, in July, Yaryna lost her voice and finally sought the help she needed from a source at hand – Yulia.

Yulia in green with other women seated on either side of her.
Yulia leading a support session for a group of women

Now, a year after fleeing Ukraine, Yaryna meditates and is learning to recognize her feelings as they arise. She is rediscovering the joyful, playful part of herself and can separate Yaryna the refugee and volunteer from Yaryna the young woman. “Without Yulia’s support, I would not have survived,” she says. “And my story has a happy ending: even in a situation when you think everything is over – with the psychologist’s support, you can get out of it.” 

Yaryna is volunteering in Krakow’s schools to share her experience with students. “I always recommend them to enjoy being teenagers safely living their childhood,” she says, remembering her drive to safety. “Appreciate not having to grow up in one day.”

READ MORE about our work in Poland and Ukraine.

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