Film Looks at Life of Social Worker Irena Sendler

Kamilah Omari, left, and Bekki Ow-ÄrhusKamilah Omari, left, and Bekki Ow-Ärhus answer questions at the screening of "Irena Sendler: In the Name of their Mothers". About 30 social workers viewed the film at NASW’s national office.

The NASW national office hosted a Dec. 3 screening of the new documentary film Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers, directed by Mary Skinner. The event, attended by more than 30 social workers from in and around Washington, doubled as a continuing education course on applied ethics.

According to Bekki Ow-Ärhus and Kamilah Omari, NASW senior practice associates who co-facilitated the course, it has been a while since the association hosted an open-invitation continuing education event for members at the national office.

“Of course, we have the Lunchtime series, but that is virtual; people don’t typically come to the office for the training,” Omari told NASW News.

Greg Wright, an NASW senior public relations associate who manages the website Social Workers Speak, said it’s the first time the association has offered a film screening for continuing education purposes. Wright discovered the film and brought it to NASW with help from the NASW Foundation, which paid the licensing fee.

During World War II, Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker, along with other social workers and members of the Polish resistance, helped more than 2,500 Jewish children escape the Warsaw Ghetto and extermination by Nazis. But, in order to save the children, she and her colleagues lied to authorities and forged documents. Polish resistance workers even shot informants who threatened the safety of the operation. In the Name of Their Mothers features interviews of Sendler conducted in the years leading up to her death in 2008 at age 98.

Greg Wright, left, talks with a social worker at the screening. “I was excited to discover this film because I don’t think a lot of people know about Irena Sendler,” Wright told "NASW News."

“I was excited to discover this film,” Wright said, “because I don’t think a lot of people know about Irena Sendler. I certainly didn’t even though she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and NASW took part in a letter-writing campaign in support of her nomination. Besides that, it was just a very moving film. Like I said in my write-up for Social Workers Speak, at the end of the screening there were damp eyes in the audience and silence.”

Prior to viewing the film, participants reviewed NASW’s Code of Ethics, which articulates the values, principles and standards that social workers should consider when ethical issues arise. In addition, they reviewed five common theoretical approaches and a framework to guide ethical decision making. They then watched the film in three parts. Between each part, participants were encouraged to discuss the actions of Sendler and her colleagues, using the principles from the three documents.

“Social work ethics and laws often are confused with one another. Sendler and the cohort of social workers presented in the film broke the laws of the time and may have appeared to violate today’s code of ethics, yet their actions were the right thing to do.” Ow-Ärhus said. She added that every social worker sooner or later faces an ethical dilemma where the distinction between what’s legal, what’s ethical and what’s right may seem murky.

“This continuing education event encouraged social workers to ask themselves: ‘What are my bottom lines and what ethical theoretical approaches most speak to me and why?’” she said.

Omari added: “The participants, all of whom have been in the field for several years, expressed their appreciation for an advanced ethics course offering that challenged their critical thinking and supported them in taking charge of their own learning process and encouraging them to take advantage of the opportunity to interact with their peers.”

Some participants wanted even more, Ow-Ärhus said: “The primary complaint we received was that more time was needed for processing and a deeper discussion of the myriad issues presented in the film.”

Wright said it is his hope to screen award-winning television director, producer and writer Ted Bogosian’s new documentary film What Love Is: Pathfinders sometime this spring. This film is about Pathfinders, a program that provides comprehensive psychosocial care for cancer patients co-founded by social worker Tina Staley.