As SEED’s community coordinators and mobilizers logged on one by one to the video call and greeted each other, there was both excitement and curiosity for the first remote psychosocial support (PSS) training for staff since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). This was the start of a two-day training in April on providing remote emotional support and psychological first aid in the IDP and refugee camps SEED has been providing services. For most of the community coordinators and mobilizers, it was the first time connecting since lockdowns effectively shut down movement to the camps.

When the pandemic first reached KRI in early March, SEED immediately halted in-person services and transitioned to remote/online delivery in line with the government and public health directives. Mental health and case management services were maintained through phone calls, ensuring continuity of care. The question remained, however, of how PSS group activities could be adapted to remote delivery. 

The challenges were numerous. The families we work with often only have one cell phone with limited data and internet access. We had to equip and supply our staff to work remotely, including our community mobilizers who live in the camps we serve. Summer had begun early with temperatures soaring above 43 degrees Celsius making any daytime movement by the community mobilizers in the camps a test of physical endurance. The greatest challenge, however, was the realization that this pandemic would most likely be a long-term reality.

So, we went back to the basics and set ourselves two goals: 1) maintain relationships with the community and support them during this really difficult and stressful time and 2) continue to adapt, learn, and innovate. With the unpredictability of the pandemic and many NGO services being suspended in camps, we knew that our communities needed us now, more than ever, to be a consistent presence. This was the time to let them know we cared and that we were here for them. 

We conducted a two-day, virtual training with our community-based team on providing emotional support and psychological first aid through phone calls to past PSS participants. Knowing that the stress of the pandemic was impacting the whole community, we focused not just on individuals but on the whole family unit as we conducted calls.  

The feedback was immediate. Families shared how much it mattered that we were calling and that we remembered them in the midst of the pandemic. One father told our community coordinator of how he appreciated that we cared and were available to talk, even if we could not solve the immediate issues at hand. Many families asked when our center would open again for activities.

The answer then, as it is now, was the same: “We don’t know.” What we did know is that we would continue adapting and delivering activities in any way possible. 

We expanded beyond emotional support phone calls as movement restrictions eased, permitting limited access to the camps and delivery of supplies to our staff in the camps. Our centers remained closed, but families began picking up activity supplies for their children to take home and do arts and story-writing activities virtually with our staff. As soon as was permitted, our camp-based staff began conducting tent-to-tent check-ins with families, while maintaining appropriate social distance and wearing protective masks. 

The future is uncertain, and the challenges continue. However, the core of our PSS activities remains the same – the relationships with the community.