Getting through a refugee camp requires you to be tough but reentering a society means you have to develop a sense of empathy and the ability to open up.
New research, based on a program working with newly arrived refugee children, suggests that interacting with animals through Humane Education Programs could help these children build a sense of belonging and overcome adversity.
Empathy plays a crucial role in social work with young people, says Associate Professor Heather Fraser, a leading expert on social work and human-animal relations based at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT).
Extensive research has shown that empathy allows social workers to build constructive professional relationships with clients, while acting on and receiving empathy helps clients manage trauma, isolation and mental illness.
Higher empathy is also linked to a lowered propensity for violence against both humans and other animals, she said.
In a recent peer-reviewed study, completed while Dr Fraser worked at Flinders University, Dr Fraser and her co-authors say that spending time with animals can help young people build their empathy, and deal more positively with trauma and isolation.
The article 'Young People empathising with animals; Reflections on an Australian RSPCA Humane Education Programme' uses the case of a Humane Education Program to illustrate the therapeutic role that animal empathy can play for people from dislocated communities.
The RSPCA Victoria program targeted secondary students from Melbourne’s outer suburbs who had newly arrived in Australia, particularly refugees and asylum seekers. The students were taught how to safely interact with various animals, such as horses, cows, sheep, goats, cats, dogs and rabbits. Facilitators modelled kind and respectful treatment of the animals, and encouraged the children to follow their example.
Empathising with animals and enjoying their reciprocal affection can improve young people’s empathic skills, and help them feel a sense of belonging in an unfamiliar setting, said Associate Professor Nik Taylor. Dr Taylor is an expert in human-animal relations at Flinders University, and co-authored the article with Dr Fraser and Associate Professor Tania Signal.
Several trends emerged from the children’s responses to the program. These included development of empathic understanding of animals, positive attitudinal change towards animals previously frightening or unfamiliar to the students, and the possibility of animals playing the role of friends and therapists to children and young people.
“The children participating in the program felt more connected to Australia, and more connected to their school community,” said Dr Fraser.
“When people migrate they have many problems and they are sad because they are starting a new life and learning a new language and it is also a different culture. Therefore it is really good for kids if they just spend time with animals to get rid of the problems and to forget the sadness”, said one student after participating.
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