Aeen’s story: from Syria to Iraqi Kurdistan

12 February 2021, 17:09

“If you are feeling a bit down and want to see a psychologist, sometimes all you really need is a friend who will listen – and that’s more or less what we try to offer, to help people before they seek out the specialists”.

Camille has been coordinating our mental health and psycho-social support project (MHPSS)  in Iraqi Kurdistan for about a year now, in 4 refugee camps for Syrians around Erbil. The smallest camp hosts around 2,000 people, the biggest hosts almost 11,000.

The project was launched in late 2012 and has been operational ever since. Doctors, psychiatrists and psycho-social health workers are all dedicated to protecting refugees’ mental health. The original plan was to help the many Syrians forced to flee the war, when “there were so many extremely serious cases of post-traumatic stress disorder,” explains Camille. The situation has changed now, so the daily challenges have also changed.

“What is now considered ‘normal’ includes the social and emotional issues faced by refugees who have been living in a camp for nearly 10 years”, she explains. Families have been split up and there can also sometimes be conflicts between camp ‘neighbours’, and “there is practically no chance of finding any kind of employment”.

Resources are extremely scarce and every family has to cope with unimaginable levels of stress and tension.

“It’s not as if we see patients who are suicidal or who have undiagnosed psychiatric illness every day”, she continues “so, over these last two years, our goal has been to expand our more basic services in order to help more people”.

So this Un Ponte Per project has evolved from offering clinical/psychiatric support to psycho-social support “which means we can help more people cope with the stresses and frustrations of everyday life.”

But even just talking about their problems, like a lack of income, or coping with a bereavement, is not at all easy. So our project has now expanded to include many community health workers who live inside the camp, which helps create a trust-based social fabric to facilitate interaction and dialogue.

“We have seen that a strong community psycho-social support network, including people from the camp, can reduce the number of people who need to see a psychologist or a psychiatrist”, Camille tells us proudly.

Meanwhile, group therapy sessions have been organized, with camp dwellers doing role-play exercises together and learning to support each other. Our staff members are there to guide the sessions, encourage participants to form support networks and exchange best practices. There are many different activities available for the various age groups: adults, children or adolescents. “We encourage everybody to involve their family members to encourage understanding of the psychological support issues, so that the environment and social interactions themselves can become a source of support themselves”, she explains. Individual therapy sessions are still organized when necessary.

In 2020, the pandemic made conditions even tougher in the Kurdistan camps. Especially, recalls Camille, “when we realized that the relationships we had worked so hard to foster were at risk, as they played a vital role for the community when facing everyday challenges.”

This was mainly because the camp was just not equipped to cope with the pandemic: the local authorities were extremely alarmed by the prospect of even one infected refugee in the camps. So they introduced very harsh preventative measures, including restrictions on entering or leaving the camps.

This lockdown had a massive impact on people’s quality of life. Restrictions on freedom of movement meant that people who lived ‘hand-to-mouth’ and relied on short-term jobs outside the camp, could no longer make a living.

We have seen that the same virus can affect people in very different ways, triggering very different problems for people living in the same camp. “When the schools closed, for example,” continues Camille, “some children had access to a PC at home, with parents who could help them study, while other children have families who can’t even afford the most basic everyday necessities.”

Often we would focus on helping the children to relieve some of the pressure on their parents, so they were able to focus on other aspects of family life.

Despite years of support and the establishment of a strong trust-based network, mental illness is still engulfed in social stigma. Like the story of Aeen.

Camille remembers Aeen very well, how the look in her eyes changed thanks to their psycho-social support and therapy. Just like many other people who were helped through tough times, some of whom occasionally drop by the center just to say hello, have a chat or say thank you.

“I am keen to tell the story of Aeen – says Camille – because it is a fairly common one around here. This is the story of a woman who lost her home, her sense of security, even some of her family members. She felt like the earth was taken from beneath her feet. These experiences are truly terrible for anybody, but they could actually happen to anybody.”

Unfortunately, it is rarely easy to find people suffering with mental illness, given the deeply-rooted socially taboos around the issue. Mental health problems are often associated with insanity, evil spirits and even possession. “It is not easy to challenge these stigmas. Aeen says she doesn’t care if people think she is mad, she is just happy that she is getting better. This is the greatest challenge here: encouraging people to come forward and accept help and support. Just like Aeen,” she adds.

Aeen’s gaze suggests she has just woken up from a never-ending nightmare. Her gaze expresses more than words ever could that we are providing the right kind of support to people in need, with Aeen, with Camille.