The mental hurdles Syrian refugees face after fleeing from danger

The mental challenges that affect the refugees fleeing these dangers have taken a heavy toll

Tarek Ali Ahmad
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With their homes reduced to rubble, thousands of children have died as violence rocked Syria for five years.

The mental challenges that affect the refugees fleeing these dangers - leaving their belongings and memories behind as they attempt to at rebuild their lives elsewhere – have taken a heavy toll.

One Syrian refugee says she is reaching breaking point. She lost four of her 14 children during a shelling attack on Aleppo that destroyed their house. She took her family to Damascus, but the bombing still makes for a dangerous life for her and her children.

"I don't know how I have coped,” the woman – who went by the name of al-Sahira – told the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR). "I spend a lot of time just sitting at home and looking at pictures of my dead children - I feel that I must speak to someone and tell them what I've been through.”

According to the UNHCR, anxiety, stress and depression are the most common psychological disorders refugees tackle after fleeing their war-torn country.

“The crisis has had a deep psychological effect on people, but this is a perfectly normal reaction to an abnormal situation,” said Nahla, a psychologist who heads up the mental health and psychosocial support department of the UNHCR-funded Poly-Clinic, in a UNHCR press release.

Al-Sahira is only one of thousands of refugees that have been trying to endure the mental distress that comes with living through the war. Nahla and her department treat 400-500 patients per month.

“In general, experiences of displacement due to armed conflict put significant psychological and social stress on individuals, families and communities,” Project coordinator at Restart, an NGO active in the field of rehabilitation of victims of torture and violence, told Al Arabiya English.

“These traumas are difficult to overcome and lead to psychological and/or physical disorders,” Rita Slim continued.

Five years have passed since the Syrian civil war started, and yet the end seems far from close. Over 4.7 million refugees are predicted to be registered by the end of 2016, with already 4.3 million scattered in neighboring countries.

15 to 20 percent of people caught up in a crises such as war tend to suffer from psychological disorders, thus roughly 200,000 Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon could be affected, estimates the World Health Organization, WHO.

Most of these migrants don’t have access to treatments for psychological or medical care, although many organizations have attempted to tackle the issue – such as medical start-up ‘What’s Up Doc,’ as well as ‘NaTakallam,’ an internet initiative that gives refugees a paying job to become an Arabic tutor.

“Support has been through NGOs working together with the Ministry of Public Health who provide consultations and medications free of charge,” UNHCR spokesperson Lisa Abou Khaled told Al Arabiya English.

“Through supported Primary Health Care centers in Lebanon and some specialist Mental Health Centers, UNHCR works with three partner organizations in providing mental health care and treatment to Syrian refugees.”

Lebanon is a country that has amassed more than one million refugees, a quarter of its population already. The country is attempting to hold its own weight and limited resources, let alone the refugee crisis, as it has been going through its political turmoil, as well as social crises that have left rivers of trash.

"The dire living conditions refugees find themselves, in Lebanon, for example, do not allow for the normal healing processes to happen. Their living conditions are not fit to allow them to overcome their grief,” MSF Mental Health Activity Manager, Rima Makki, told Al Arabiya English.

“Since everyone is dealing with so much stress, promiscuity and interpersonal problems abound as the management of frustrations becomes more and more difficult."

A NGO named Restart tackles such socio-economic challenges Syrian refugees face in host countries, where laws often make it difficult for them to adapt to their new surroundings, Slim said.

While most of this trauma is sparked by the war, the migration process is also a big factor leading to psychological disorders among refugees, a professor at the department of psychology at Istanbul Sehir University, Ceren Acarturk, told Al Arabiya English.

“How the host population accept them is important for Syrians,” Acarturk said. “Language barriers and the lack psychologists or psychiatrists for those [refugees]” were the main reasons behind further distress.

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