Trauma and Human Trafficking

The war in Ukraine is leaving an entire nation in need. An incredible number of people have lost their homes, cities, and loved ones. The necessity of helping rebuild houses and schools is enormous. Just as important are the needs the people have to rebuild themselves emotionally. With sufficient trauma knowledge, we can do just that. All we have to do is listen.

Being deprived of safety can have a massive effect on people and should never be underestimated. The need for care is never higher than during war and similar crises. The trauma hits you just as hard regardless of age, culture, or belief.

In March, I was at the Polish-Ukrainian border, helping out with the enormous stream of people fleeing the war, which started in February 2022. The massive number of children, mothers, newborns, disabled, elderly, and pets was beyond belief. It is true what they say; you can never prepare yourself for the horror of war.

While the TV and newspapers tell us about the bombing, violence, and destruction of a whole nation, they do not show us what the war does to the people. Children are deprived of their security, women are deprived of living with their husbands, and the elderly are deprived of their right to die in their childhood home. These are all things to which they are entitled.

During my time in Poland and Ukraine, I met many of these people, and what I experienced was overwhelming. Like the little boy who had to be the parent comforting his mom, who was reduced to tears. Like the blind woman who, all alone, with absolutely no English knowledge, was to be sent to a random country in Europe as a refugee. Like the young woman who was raped and hadn’t said a word in three days when she arrived at the border. This is the reality, and it is brutal. That’s why we need to talk about it.

Trauma is "an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, natural disaster or other external threats." The trauma that the people of Ukraine are experiencing now can thus be seen all over the world.

Psychosocial needs have no borders, so the knowledge we are now gaining in Ukraine can – and should – be a part of our future trauma care, just as every previous crisis has impacted what we know today. For instance, the work of support organizations after the terror attack in the USA on 9/11 is still actively sharing their now tremendous bank of knowledge and experience. The reason is simple; they want to heal the surviving families, which leads the way for other trauma care workers to follow. The heartbreaking experiences of the surviving families should not be in vain.

When I was not at the border crossing between Poland and Ukraine, I was helping out at the refugee shelter 20 minutes away. Here I was able to meet volunteers from around the world, filled with courage and motivation, and most of all, their hearts were in the right place.

During my time there, what stood out most was the imbalance in the caretaker’s field of expertise vs. the actual needs, compounded in this situation. So many volunteers were good at cooking, transporting, setting up shelters, and making beds, and the way they approached these tasks with great willingness was nothing less than impressive. However, it was not the psychosocial care so greatly needed.

As a trauma survivor myself, I have a lot of everyday issues I need help with, such as getting information, being counseled, and being guided as to where to go next. But on the other side are psychosocial needs like someone to talk to, cry with, or simply be with. I need someone who cares about me and wants me to feel just a little bit safe amid the chaos. These needs are, without a doubt, just as important.

The chaos is enormous! When a traumatic incident occurs, a lot of things happen at once. Specifically in Ukraine, the first challenge was relocating thousands of people. In just a few weeks, millions of people had left their homes. It was a demanding time and for those already traumatized by war, being part of a massive crowd resulted in absolute chaos. There were many practical issues, such as the lack of essential items, your daughter needing to use the bathroom, and your grandmother needing help to stand upright on her tired feet. There were volunteers everywhere; some spoke your language, and others didn't.

Human trafficking was a genuine concern. Refugees fleeing Ukraine often felt they had no choice but to seek help from strangers, even getting in cars with unknown drivers.

One night I helped a mom and her two children over the border where she said a friend was waiting to pick them up. This "friend" turned out to be a stranger, a friend of a friend who had vouched for him. She didn’t know his name or their destination. I told her about other women we had lost because they had trusted the wrong men. I asked if I could put them on a safe bus to the nearest shelter instead, but this woman was so tired that she could barely stand on her feet. It was the middle of the night, and she was desperately hanging on to hope that this stranger was a good man, so she and her two kids got into his car. There was nothing I could do. Whether they arrived safely at her friend’s location or not, I will never know.

In these traumatic times, people often feel desperate. This story is a heartbreaking example of how trauma can impact our thought processes. Our minds are not designed to handle so much fear and so many internal panic alarms at once. Our mental health shuts down, and it is the responsibility of caretakers to help people put the pieces back together again.

Christina Sandberg lives in Norway, where she works for the International Red Cross. She has many years of experience in trauma therapy. Christina helped support groups after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States and the July 22 mass shooting in Norway. Christina volunteers with the New Horizons Trauma Therapy Team.

Christina Sandberg from Red Cross


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