Travel Grant Series: Mercy Malaysia

Sharima Ruwaida Abbas, East-West Center Affiliate Student and PhD Candidate at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, received a Travel Grant from the East-West Center Alumni Association and the EWCA Hawaii Chapter to help her participated in an internship at MERCY Malaysia, where she helped this institution strengthen the psychosocial component in their disaster-relief efforts by compiling relevant psychosocial materials in a field guide.

Here is Sharima’s report from her experience.

EWCA Alumni Summer Travel Grant for 2010 REPORT

I am so thankful to EWCA office for granting me with summer travel grant that allowed me to help developing psychosocial materials for Mercy Malaysia. As I mentioned in my application, Mercy Malaysia is an international volunteer relief organization dedicated to provide medical and humanitarian services locally and internationally. They have served in many major world disasters beginning with Kosovo in 1999, Asian Tsunami in 2004, war in Middle East and many others.

I was first involved with Mercy Malaysia as a volunteer during the 2006 earthquake in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Since then, I have been an active member of their psychosocial team as a psychosocial volunteer and actively advocate Mercy Malaysia on the important of psychosocial components. Many of us who are active volunteers with Mercy are full-time psychiatrists, social workers or counselors so we maintain our discussion on strategic planning online. We help Mercy not only by participating in psychosocial strategy discussions, but also in the field when psychosocial assessment is needed as part of any disaster relief effort.

My main focus is to help Mercy Malaysia to strengthen psychosocial components by compiling relevant psychosocial materials as a guide during disaster. Although identifying and developing the psychosocial materials are an on-going effort since my involvement with Mercy Malaysia, the standard manual is very much in need to ensure reliability and accountability. Since Mercy Malaysia was established based on medical services, the psychosocial services have always being ‘ad-hoc’ services during disaster. After ten years of establishment, the board of management feels that it is important to establish a position for psychosocial coordinator and have a standard psychosocial manual to be referred to by any Mercy psychosocial volunteers during disaster. As I also mentioned in my grant application, Dr. Faizal, the President of Mercy has indicated that his management is still trying to develop a proper strategic plan in order to develop a strong psychosocial team and department. While he invited me to volunteer and work on this project, a full time Psychosocial Coordinator is still in searched. The permanent psychosocial coordinator is very important to ensure accountability and train new psychosocial volunteers while overseeing the needs for psychosocial services during disaster.

During my involvement in Yogyakarta Earthquake in 2006, our psychosocial team has come out with a guideline to do psychosocial assessment among school children. The assessment entails several important psychosocial components such as indentifying which schools and children needed psychosocial interventions. The assessment procedures have to be the same procedures in one school compared to another school. From this experience, we have learned and identified the proper helped needed by the schools/school children. Therefore, I helped to compile and edit the psychosocial assessments so that it will be relevant to the local needs by identifying the important psychosocial components and activities such as counseling session and play/art therapy sessions. My task is to organize the instructions when doing all these activities. It is important for the psychosocial volunteers to understand the procedure when doing play and art therapy. In addition, an example guideline on how to write an assessment report is also compiled.

Another task is to develop a psychosocial training manual. It is important to identify relevant training materials based on different kinds of disaster that Mercy Malaysia always gets involved in. I divided all the materials into natural disaster and man-made disaster such as war. Under the natural disaster, I also group the training documents into tsunami, flood, land-slide and others. Although I have compiled all the necessary materials that I have received during my own training in psychosocial disaster management and documents that our psychosocial team has developed throughout our volunteer with Mercy Malaysia, all the materials are waiting for a newly hired Psychosocial Coordinator to finalize, edit and present for approval. A week before I came back to Hawaii, Mercy Malaysia finally hired a graduate majoring in psychology to be their full-time Psychosocial Coordinator. This is actually a great accomplishment and wonderful news for us who have advocated the importance of psychosocial components in humanitarian assistance.

Based on my latest involvement in Chile, working with locals’ psychosocial providers is very essential. This is one of the components that I identified and help to develop. I categorize the working relationship into three different important levels which are micro, mezzo and macro or in other words at individual, family and group; and community and organization levels. The different psychosocial intervention activities are identified and listed by looking at previous report done by Mercy volunteers. Then, appropriate interventions and activities were chosen for each level.

I did not get to work closely with other relevant units or departments in Mercy Malaysia. The identification and compilation of psychosocial materials require details and many materials still need to gather and develop. I however have lengthy discussion with Mr. Raja Manickam, my team leader when I was in the Chile mission recently. Based on our involvement in Chile, we indentified few key components about psychosocial assessment during disaster. We both agreed that psychosocial training personal needs to go and do psychosocial assessment when disaster happens. Previously, psychosocial assessment personal is not usually included in Mercy assessment team (the first team that will go into the field and assessing the needs after any disaster took place). We also identified that having proper and standard manual is still not enough to ensure best and appropriate humanitarian services. Although I have highlighted in some compilation materials, cultural competency elements are essential to be highlighted in the training for new psychosocial volunteers.

Overall, this opportunity helped me develop my organizational skills by providing access to the organizational setting of voluntary and humanitarian service work locally and internationally. I was glad to have the opportunity to work together with Mercy Malaysia in solidifying and making their mission into reality. This opportunity has helped me develop my strengths and ability in working for a non-government organization (NGO) as most of my career thus far has always been with government institutions. This will expand and enhance my personal development in terms of working culture and demands in the field. Again, my deepest appreciation to EWCA for granting me the travel grant. Indeed, it was a valuable experience and it helps to develop my research area in disaster management and humanitarian services.