Illustration by Daniela Nunes


Working with young refugees and young displaced people from escalated conflict zones

7 reflections from practice

 by Zaruhi Lavchyan 


In today’s Europe, conflicts have unfortunately become a new norm, a part of our life, our newsfeed, our discussions in the morning with colleagues. Peace is as fragile as ever, and we all got to know it through cruel reality. The risk of frozen or old conflicts escalating is vivid. Any crisis can become a catalyst for a new hot spot on the map of Europe.

More than ever, we realise we need to be ready for even the worst scenarios. But this article is not at all about geopolitics and the crisis. It is in fact on tragic optimism, on resilience, on the inner force that drives people forward, about the community of peers and like-minded people who keep alive the belief and confidence that change is possible. In this article we would like to share the insights and reflections we had while supporting young people whose lives were and still are affected by escalated conflicts. These are not axioms, but rather things to be aware of, consider and keep in mind when planning these types of interventions.


 Reflection 1. Youth work on the frontline

Youth work and youth workers have shown their strengths are at the forefront of the response in difficult situations. The field has shown its capacities to work and perform well under stress. The whole pandemic era was a good example of this. The youth work field adjusted quickly and efficiently to the challenge and the limitations and managed to stay close to young people. The field is very fast in responding to emergencies. It does not need hundreds of people, expert meetings, advisers, strategies, timelines or high-level agreements to start operating in emergencies. But it is not only the flexibility of the system that helps it to respond. Youth work is connected to people on the ground, it is close to the everyday life and issues of young people; these personal relations help it to keep a hand on the pulse and sense of what needs to be done. Besides, there is a lot of professional competence in the field, and moreover, a genuine readiness and conscious choice that whatever happens, it will be there to act and support. This empathy, solidarity, philanthropy and human-centredness are characteristics that are hard to overestimate.


 Reflection 2. Principles and core values of youth work support for refugee and displaced young people

The way we understand and recognise youth work might differ in our field, but the understanding and agreement on the core principles and values is widely shared. These principles include  solidarity, non-discrimination, openness, equality, sensitivity, allowing the possibility of holistic growth and development, voluntary nature, clear and close link to the needs, respect for dignity, understanding of the experiences, fears and interests of young people, empathy, accessibility, safe space, non-violent communication, democratic values and practices, participation of youth, inclusion, needs-based and realistic nature of youth work, just to name a few. These principles make the youth work space a place that can indeed welcome young people from different life situations, conditions and backgrounds, using various approaches, and adapting the work to cater for new needs and new people. These aspects contribute greatly to the creation of the welcoming, open and emotionally safe space shared by many.


 Reflection 3. Youth work aims and objectives readjust dynamically when working in emergencies

Youth work is known for its quick responses and potential to adapt to emerging needs and orient the work where it is needed. When we are talking about young people who have been displaced because of an escalation of conflict, or are refugees, it is important to understand that their situations are different. Some young people might be with families, while others are alone. Some might come only with their mother or grandmother while the men of the family are still in the country, on the front line. Some might be coming from the fighting themselves, or others might have a loss in the family. Some will be displaced temporarily, others displaced forever, or some will become refugees and will move to a third or even fourth country.

So, what should the role of youth work and youth workers be in supporting them? Some of the essential questions are: what are the current needs, differences from day-to-day life and engagement, life situation and current context? What should be the objective and focus of youth work intervention and what are the specificities when working with young refugees and displaced young people from conflict zones?

 sociocultural adaptation (including language learning when and if relevant);

 development of self-reliance and empowerment;

 facilitation of access to human rights and addressing basic human needs;

 orientation and guidance in accessing social and other services and humanitarian aid;

 provision of certain psychosocial support;

 creating trust and hope;

 creation of a feeling of safety;

 support in continuous education and learning;

 working with host communities on stereotypes, stigma, hate speech, addressing discrimination and exclusion;

 constructing spaces where young people can restore their confidence, express themselves and lead a life close to normal, in dignity, and free from life-threatening situations;

 reinforced counselling and referral to specialised services;

 help with developing coping skills and basic psychological first aid;

 support economic and social integration through referring or providing career and employment guidance;

 building social links, providing socialisation platforms, building trust with local communities;

 contributing to community inclusion through joint activities with local/host community (sports, music, arts and crafts, cooking, film screenings, etc.);

 involving young people in the work and giving space for their potential to be applied in the work done.


 Reflection 4. Work settings and impact on the content

The practice has given a number of insights into the ways in which youth work is and can be organised to take into account and address all the peculiarities of the situation. The work must be organised in various ways and in various places when it comes to the needs of working with young people fleeing escalated conflicts. The scenarios need to be carefully analysed, the work needs to be well prepared, all the factors must be taken into account, and the limitations and opportunities weighed up. The work might take place in a refugee reception centre, a refugee camp with restricted access, or a collective shelter in an urban district or a small village. People might be invited to join activities in an existing youth centre, or you might have to work in a mobile youth work caravan. Another possibility can be working in a host community, where displaced people are not living in a centralised shelter but in private homes. The young people who are in refugee or displaced situations might have difficulties making any long-term plans, committing to long-term programmes and projects, taking responsibility for multi-month work, as often their status and situation is shaky and they might have to move at any point. This impacts the way we plan to work with and for them. That is why with the open nature of the work, the freedom to enter and leave the processes is essential.

It is important to understand that if the work is to be done in collective shelters, centres and camps this might often mean that you will work not only with young people, but also with children of different ages, their parents and grandparents, and you need to be ready and open to do this. You should know that living all together in a closed space is always full of challenges, conflicts might arise, people are out of their usual life and comfort zones, tensions can be frequent and the emotional stress is vivid. All this impacts the programme, methods and modes you chose, and the way you structure the intervention. It is also essential that cultural specificities, patterns, traditions and ways of living are also taken into account and respected. If there are possibilities of bringing the young people to your usual youth work settings, this provides the opportunity to change the routine and change the scene for those youngsters. Supporting mixed groups interactions plays a vital role.


 Reflection 5. Reconsideration of the notion of safety and security

Several things need to be kept in mind. Young people and their families fleeing conflict areas have lost their feeling of security, so whatever work is done the security and safe space must be ensured. This might mean maximum clarity of what is offered, when, why, which agenda, who is going to work, for how long, what is happening each hour, etc. Parents might not be at ease leaving their children alone for even a few hours. If taking groups of youth outside their communities, alone without parents even for a short time, you might be asked to provide information on physical safety. We were often asked if we have bomb shelters in the buildings we work in, first-aid kits and training, evacuation plans, the possibility of quick access to the main infrastructure if anything happens, clear addresses and maps of where the work is done, etc. Part of the safety considerations is linked to strict guidance in a physical space. It is not enough to give an address and invite people to come. Often you might be asked to provide door-to-door travel even in the same city, and this is not a luxury, but a possibility of less stress in trying to orient in a new place.

Another issue is data protection. Not all countries have widely recognised data protection codes, protocols and policies. In emergencies this might not be seen as a priority, but it is absolutely essential to make sure that the personal data of the people you work with are safe. Often people and organisations that want to help might approach a youth worker or an organisation to ask for names and contact details of refugee and displaced families, and the inclination is of course to give them out, hoping that an additional aid or services will be accessible. Also, the media and journalists tend to come to give visibility to the groups, and to take photos and videos with the best of intentions, but this risks people’s data being misused and causing damage. But this is a red light. No data can be provided to anyone without the person’s consent. They have to be fully aware of why the information is being requested, by whom, for what purpose and, surely in the case of minors, the consent has to come from the parents. Special attention should also be given to young women and girls, as often in conflicts they risk ending up in violent situations and you might need to have strategies and policies dedicated to responding, acting and supporting them.


 Reflection 6. Training the staff and volunteers

Youth workers have amazing capacities in working with people and many of these professional capacities and personal approaches make them important actors of support and work with youth from conflict situations. Attention, care and empathy, open communication, non-judgmental attitude, and so on, are a good starting point, and will need to be topped with a range of specific abilities and functional knowledge. This includes, among others, competences to provide basic  psychological first aid, identification of specific needs and conditions and referral to relevant services, understanding and application of cultural sensitivity, enhanced information and counselling capacities, stress resilience, emotional control tools and mechanisms, co-operation with external actors, data protection policies, etc. This means that youth work providers have to put in place the training of staff to prepare and develop the needed specific competences. We do not always have the resources to offer extensive educational work to staff, but training courses can be conducted in co-operation with psychologists, social workers, staff of development agencies, emergency workers and international organisations responsible for refugees and displaced people. That is why a wide network of structures responding to this issue will help bridge these needs. An important note: It is vital to understand that youth workers are not social workers, not psychologists, not humanitarian aid professionals, and not teachers. There are limitations to what they can do and are trained to do. Knowing your own limitations for both subjective and objective reasons helps you do what you can do best, and avoids harming anyone with help that is not professional and relevant.

Self-care and professional support: Helping professionals and volunteers need to be supported. This can be done by introducing supervision models, evening meetings with peers, psychological consultation systems and policies securing resources to help the helpers. This might seem a luxury in tense situations, but these systems provide the space to develop resilience and continue working.


 Reflection 7. Need for partnerships and co-ordinated effort

We always say that youth work should be well connected to different youth support services, it will need to have a strong cross-sectoral network and be linked to a wider community of practice. When working with young people coming from conflict-affected backgrounds or emergencies, this becomes an absolute necessity. Youth workers are often acting as people identifying issues when working with youth and will need to have the capacities to do so, both to assess what might be happening with different people, but also to know very clearly who and where to refer. The shared information in this regard plays a vital role. A wide network of co-operation, of organisations and people working with the same target group, and having programmes and aid provides the possibility of a joint response, and more specialised care and support. Moreover, co-operation gives a chance of mobilising scarce resources and avoiding the duplication of work.


 Instead of a conclusion… call for action

In the face of the harsh realities that young refugees and displaced individuals from escalated conflict zones endure, it is crucial to recognise the power of resilience within them and learn and capitalise on it. These young people have faced unimaginable hardships, leaving behind the comfort of their homes and the security of their communities.

Youth workers have shown and continue to show unwavering dedication to being at the forefront of support, navigating the complexities of emergencies with empathy and agility. It is through their connection to people on the ground, their understanding of core principles, and their readiness to act, that they create emotionally safe spaces for young people to find their futures.

Reflection alone is not enough; it calls us to action. The youth work community needs to continue to embrace the principles and values of youth work, adapting dynamically to the unique needs of young refugees and displaced individuals. We must continue to equip ourselves and our teams with specialised training to meet these challenges with expertise and care, understanding the limitations and strengths of our roles. Strong and dedicated multisector and multilevel partnerships and co-ordinated effort are essential for reaching across sectors and borders to build a community of support. By combining our resources and knowledge, we can create a powerful safety net for these vulnerable groups of young people, providing them with guidance, education and emotional support to grow and develop, making a difference in their lives, fostering a sense of belonging and empowering them to dream once more.









 Issue 33

 In times of conflict 



Zara is a trainer, expert and author in non-formal education, in love with learning about learning.