Refugees: Don’t take them for granted

I had always taken refugees for granted. Whenever I heard of a refugee crisis I would, of course, feel sympathy, but I never fully comprehended the difficulty of being a refugee. However, thanks to my course, “Refugee’s Mental Health: Global and Local Perspectives,” where we learn about the challenges and approaches to helping refugees through a psychological perspective, I learned that there is more to a refugee than leaving his or her home.

Due to internal crises like the Syrian civil war and natural disasters like the typhoons in the Philippines, the world has seen a devastating amount of refugees in the past few years.

At the end of 2013, there were 51.2 million people displaced from their homes. That is the most since the Post-WW era. What makes it even more insane is the fact that, if they were their own country, the “The Nation of the Displaced” would be the 26th largest in the world.

Many refugees tend to develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) when fleeing their homes. However, we learned that refugees’ traumatic experiences may not be the primary explanation for their symptoms of depression and stress.

This is where I began to comprehend how difficult it is to be a refugee.

Imagine you who have to flee to a neighboring country. You have money for a month. What are your three biggest challenges?

This was the question our professor asked us. I thought of coping with distress, taking care of family, and food. After going around and having a discussion, my professor told me that, though my examples were true, there are more challenges. The two I found most interesting were disrupting one’s “way of life” and “cultural relativity.”

It’s common sense to believe that a refugee has a disruption in his daily life, which is why I, and I think a lot of people, don’t fully understand the difficulties refugees deal with. We think to ourselves, yeah, they’re obviously going to need to adapt to different things, but think of it this way:

When or what do you have for breakfast, lunch, or dinner? When do you go out for a walk or a run? When do you go out to hang out with your friends? These consistencies of going about your day and performing the pleasures of your life are absolutely essential for feeling good.

Now you have to flee your home in Nigeria to Chad. You won’t have your lunch the same time of day as you usually do. You probably won’t have what you typically have for lunch. You can’t afford to go out for a run to clear your mind because you don’t want to risk the few things you have being stolen or your family members getting hurt by Boko Haram because there is poor security in your refugee camp, and many other concerns that hold you back from doing what you would normally do.

It all sounds simple, but if you think about it, these small things of eating and doing other social activities keep us at ease.

As for cultural relativity, this is a challenge the UN has faced when dealing with refugees. UNCHR (the UN’s organization for treating refugees) primarily uses Western methods to help refugees, such as therapy. However, most refugees come from non-western countries and thus have different cultural backgrounds and views.

For instance, western health services typically treat the problem “within” someone who is emotionally distressed. In other words, they take a more scientific approach. Many refugees come from cultures where religious and supernatural understandings help ease their emotional distress and, thus, many health services cannot provide them with culturally appropriate care.

In addition, there is the issue of foreign languages. Let’s say an elderly Iraqi refugee needs to speak with a therapist after his traumatic experience of fleeing from Daesh last summer. However, the health clinic cannot provide a fluent Arabic speaking doctor to communicate with him.

These are some of the many challenges the West has to adapt to when treating culturally foreign refugees, which, again, make up most of The Nation of The Displaced.

There is also the issue of being a foreigner in the country you fled to. You don’t know where things are, how things work, who people are, and perhaps not know their native language. Where and when can I find a bus or a train? Where can I send my kids to school and for how much? Where, or can I even, get a job to provide for my family?

Moreover, when we talked about cultural values in class, we discussed how one’s religious practices are essential for his or her well being whether it is because it is routine or because it helps soothe them.

Now, let’s say you are a Syrian Christian who fled from the civil war into neighboring Lebanon where most Syrians fled to. You are emotionally distressed from the recent events and you would like to go to a church to pray for your family and calm yourself. However, you realize that you fled to a Shia neighborhood in Lebanon, can’t find any churches, and might risk your security if you identify yourself as a Syrian Christian.

Again, these are only some of the many issues that refugees have to deal with. Whether having to create a new schedule, security risks, or not being able to perform your cultural practices to cope with your depression due to sectarian conflicts in the general region, being a refugee is hard not simply because you fled your home.

So the next time you hear about a pack of refugees on the media, don’t just take them for granted. It’s not that they’re just fleeing their homes; they’re leaving and will have more challenges when trying to resettle.

I have only just begun this course so I can’t give a concrete solution yet. However, we did go over some possible ideas on how to help refugees in the non-western world.

For example, health services need to adapt to the refugees’ cultural norms so they can treat them properly. We need a more broad base of therapists who can speak foreign languages. And lastly, and what I found most interesting, was the idea of helping build community centers in refugee camps so they can perform their religious practices and have a social life, which are absolutely necessary for one’s emotional well being.

I am looking forward to getting a hands on experience too. Later on in the semester, we are planning a trip to Tel-Aviv where we will observe and help the African refugees in Israel.




About the Author
Jonah Naghi is a Boston-based writer and the Partnership Chair of Israel Policy Forum's IPF Atid Steering Committee in the city of Boston. A frequent commentator on Middle Eastern affairs, Jonah has spent extensive time in the region and received his Masters in Social Work at Boston College (2020) and LICSW (2023). All the views expressed are his own.
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