by Wasan Abu-Baker
Every child has the right to a healthy and peaceful future. Wars damage the dreams for those children who suffer hunger, poverty, pain, and trauma. They have seen their friends and families die, and their schools, houses, and hospitals destroyed. This pain will last a lifetime and will have an impact on the children that is hard to predict.
Every year the war has gotten worse and violations of international law against women and children continues to rise. The Syrian war is entering its sixth year and has continued to cause emotional disorders. Studies have shown that mental trauma affects large numbers of Syrians inside and outside Syria. International and local psychotherapists agree that the damage is huge, and the needs are extraordinary, but unfortunately, not enough has been done to help the civilians heal due to lack of resources. With many adults facing severe emotional disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and children facing intellectual and developmental challenges, only 5% of the Syrians in the host countries (i.e. Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq) are provided the mental health services they need. These finds highlight the limited access to mental health services. In addition, women and girls are facing early marriage and losing their ability to finish education, which compounds the mental health issue for the entire population. Adults face stress and depression due to unemployment and an inability to provide for their families.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has reported that most Syrians have significant depression, grief, PTSD, and different types of anxiety. Lack of treatment has caused an increased level of stress and worsening symptoms. This is most alarming for women and children who are the most vulnerable population when it comes to mental health. In many cases, even when mental health is provided and especially in countries such as Turkey, Europe, United States, Canada, and Australia, language is a significant barrier.
Mental health treatment is best provided in the patient’s native language, Arabic in the case of Syrians, however finding the healthcare professional with the appropriate training and language skills is extremely difficult. Additionally, mental health therapy requires some understanding of cultural sensitivity and understanding, making it even more challenging. Using interpreters or interpreters unfamiliar with the culture of the patients lowers the level of healing and extends the time of the sessions, overburdening the system. There are many primary care Syrian physicians working in the host countries, however, they are not mental health specialists and due to the scarcity of such practitioners, they end up attempting to fulfill this need. Training for Arabic speaking health providers and social workers contributes positively to the effort of providing mental health support. Also, through school counselors and home visits, programs that help the children adjust and overcome the trauma can be implemented.
Millions of children born and raised during this conflict have seen nothing but war and destruction. They have known fear and stress, which makes it difficult for this next generation to preserve the Syrian culture to build a better tomorrow. With the awareness of this problem, our hope is that more resources can be provided to meet this great need to help build a better future for the Syrian people.
These victims of war and trauma can be helped, but are in need of specialists who specialize in the trauma of war and post-traumatic stress disorder. Additionally and beyond seeking mental health services, individuals can heal through peer support and an opportunity to share their stories with others who have gone through similar trauma. This is not easily done because it requires a tremendous amount of trust to be willing to share your feelings with others. Syrians willing to share their story must be coached and helped to make the experience one of healing and not reliving the devastation. They need to know that the listener cares for their well being and is there because they want to help them heal. Validation of their emotions is very important in helping them open up to their peers and community members.
The victims of the war are facing enormous challenges, however, life ahead of them has many possibilities and paths. They can make a good life for themselves, but it must be their decisions that lead them forward and others can only be there to guide and support at times of need. Anyone starting a new life must be ready for success and failure, which is not easy for anyone. In Islam, we gain strength from our belief that God will always be there for us. The Quran has many stories about the trials and tribulations of the prophets of God. We learn a lot from these stories and about the strength that these great prophets showed when tested in their lives. They suffered in their lives, but did not lose hope and they did not despair.
Professionals (i.e. educators, healthcare providers, social workers) working with the refugees have made an amazing commitment to supporting the families and children suffering from mental health issues and to limit the long-term impact of war on them. To help support these professionals in their cause we must make sure that mental health and psychological programs funding is sufficient. We need to increase investment in programs that support child resilience and wellbeing, which helps them achieve ways of talking about their fears and how they can deal with them.
Resources should be provided for the parents who are struggling to still support their children even if they are traumatized. Long term and ongoing support for these programs is necessary, and temporary programs do not do enough to address the need of the population. Funding for those programs should be a minimum of 12 months, and ideally 24 to 36 months. We need to be creative by integrating programs that help teachers to be well trained to work with the children who have experienced trauma during the war. Syrian children must be supported in their education to be ready to face their new lives. All of these needed services will help overcome the challenges of war and funding must continue for them.
The Syrian families in Fresno have different stories; some who came at the start of the Civil War in 2011 were not subjected to mass killing and destruction that the families who came four years later were subjected to. The trauma level for the early comers is different as they faced leaving a country they knew and were comfortable in to places that were different to them. Those who were forced to flee from the war into host counties saw death and destruction first hand as they fled to the host countries. Various factors play an important role in how the refugees were impacted by the war; the socioeconomic status before the war, level of education, access to health, leaving family behind in Syria, having family in the host countries, losing family members to the war, and which city they lived in before the war.
All of these factors have impacted the refugees’ ability to adapt to the new life in Fresno. The more capable they are to start this new life the lower the impact of PTSD and other mental health issues on their ability to integrate. For families ill-prepared to adapt to this new life, symptoms of PTSD will be worse, and in addition, depression and anxiety will be significantly increased. Establishing a new life in a new country is one of the biggest challenges they face here because they need to start from the beginning after having had a good life and security where they had relatives, friends, and neighbors around them. They have come to a new place with no connections with people, a significant language barrier, new education system for their kids, new healthcare system, and new transportation system seeming very complex which all makes it difficult for the families to adapt easily. This is why different organizations, religious centers, community volunteers, educators, and health care providers step up to offer social, financial, and emotional support for the Syrian refugee families. Despite all that everyone has already done, the need continues and the effort to assist them is in need of better organization and stronger leadership.
Check out more immigrant and refugee stories in KRL’s Tales of Diversity category. If you would like to help Syrian refugees in the Fresno area please visit Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries (FIRM)’s special webpage.