'A psychological state': A lifetime of trauma for Syrian refugees

'A psychological state': A lifetime of trauma for Syrian refugees

Written by Rachel Smalley from the NZ Herald.

It's February 5, 2021, and the screen on my iPhone lights up with a WhatsApp message. I'm in the middle of a conversation with Hind, a young Syrian refugee I met in Lebanon eight years ago, but the brutality of this message singles it out from the others.

"I had a psychological state," it reads.

I don't understand. What does she mean by a psychological state?

Hind was 14 when I met her on the Syrian-Lebanese border and now, some eight years later, I'm in Auckland using Google Translate and WhatsApp to speak to her in Ashford, a small English town in the county of Kent where she has been resettled with her husband and two young sons.

The rapid advance of technology has enabled our conversation, but it does have its limitations. Google Translate is a useful app if you're in a restaurant in Warsaw ordering a medium-rare steak, but context and emotion can be lost in a digital linguistic translation; even more so when you're translating Arabic into English. Who knows what Google Translate means by "psychological state"? Arabic is such a rich and complex language and there is often no simple or single-word translation to English.

I ask Hind if she is okay. She responds with a broken heart emoji and then tells me she is lonely in England. She misses her family, her friends and the peaceful, carefree life she lived before the war. She is one of six million refugees who escaped the Syrian conflict with little more than their lives, and the vast majority are still living in makeshift settlements along the Syrian border.

Ironically, Hind is considered one of the lucky ones, if there is such a thing in war. She was resettled in Kent in 2016 under Britain's Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. Her life is no longer in danger and she has food, water, shelter and access to education and healthcare, but spiritually she is lost. She tells me she is grateful for the life she now has, but her soul aches every day for her homeland, and she doesn't know if she will ever see her family again. Hind's "psychological state" can probably be described, at best, as a decline in her mental health, but at worst she is clinically depressed.

Rachel Smalley in a refugee camp in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, with World Vision for the Forgotten Millions campaign in 2015. Photo / Supplied via Jo Currie

In the last decade, Hind has endured a lifetime of trauma and suffering but it reached a crescendo four months ago when her father died suddenly in a refugee settlement in Lebanon. Her brother told her he died of a heart attack, but Hind believes it was grief that killed him.

"His heart was broken. My father never stopped grieving for Syria," she says.

I remember Hind's father. She introduced him as "Baba" when I first visited the settlement in 2013 and we drank steaming hot tea together in the family tent. Most of the time Baba sat on a chair on the edge of the camp, looking out towards the hills that divide Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and Syria. He was in his 50s and he had lost everything; a three-storey home in Homs, the lucrative supermarket that helped him fund so many happy family holidays, and his entire life savings. But Baba had lost more than most. Just before the Syrian conflict began, his eldest son was killed in an accident and then a few months later his wife, the mother of his children, died of cervical cancer. By the time he crossed the border into Lebanon seeking refuge from the hellish inferno in Syria, he was a solo father of three carrying two suitcases and applying to the World Food Programme to help feed his remaining children.

Hind says her father was a proud, successful businessman who spent the last years of his life surviving on a few dollars a month and rationing food. She is grief-stricken by his death and the knowledge that she will now never return to Syria with her father as she had planned.

Instead, at the age of 22, Hind is an orphan and grieving alone in England for the Syrian father she will never see again.

The Hind I talk to now is very different to the 14-year-old Hind I met eight years ago in Lebanon.

She was living with her family in a crude, flat-topped tent made from sacking and a large industrial tarpaulin. The tent had been divided into three rooms, insulated with cardboard in a bid to shield the family from Lebanon's freezing winter, and the dirt floor was covered in a mismatch of Middle Eastern carpets and rugs.

I was travelling with photographer Chris Sisarich on a World Vision assignment and reporting on the growing Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon and Jordan.

Our driver parked the SUV in the middle of the camp. Usually, that would be enough to bring a human flock of giggling, dusty, bright-eyed children tumbling out of tents, elbowing each other out of the way or peering shyly from behind their mother's legs. Not this time. The SUV arrived to very little fanfare.

I saw Hind first. She had set up a makeshift classroom and was teaching maths and Arabic to a small group of captivated children. Each child sat cross-legged on the mat, moving only to thrust a hand in the air with potentially shoulder-dislocating enthusiasm, in a desperate bid to answer the teacher's question. Hind, a young teenager masquerading as a schoolteacher, was fully in control of her tiny audience.

I watched from a distance until one of the children finally spotted the SUV. Hind looked up, quickly dismissed her class and began walking towards me, still maintaining the assumed authority of a teacher as she approached.

When she was younger Hind dreamed of becoming a teacher. Photo / Chris Sisarich

I greeted her with "as-salamu alaykum", the traditional Arabic welcome meaning "may peace be unto you". Hind wished the same for me before the warmth quickly drained from her eyes.

"Why am I living like this? Tell me!" she said.

I didn't know what to say. I looked at my translator, Patricia Mouamar, who was a humanitarian on the frontline of World Vision's refugee programme in Lebanon. She had been there from the start of the Syrian conflict and was now helping to support almost a million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon.

"Let her speak," Mouamar said.

Hind's eyes were blazing. She was furious.

"Everything is different! The air. The water. The sand. This tent. I am a stranger here. I don't know this land. I want to go home. I want to go back to Syria!"

Hind was incredulous that war had broken out. She was being denied her education, her future and her life as she once knew it.

"If I could go back to Syria for one hour, I would. Just one hour. I want to go back to school, I want to find my friends. I miss every single grain of sand in Syria."

Her shoulders dropped and the fury was suddenly gone. She turned away to hide her watering eyes. Her only wish was for the simplicity and familiarity of her family home in Syria, and the routine of school life. She didn't know it in 2013, but her wish would die alongside Syria when it officially became a failed state.

Two years earlier, when Hind was 12, she heard the sound of heavy shelling for the first time in the city of Homs. It began with mortars and machine-gun fire, but it quickly deteriorated into a savage aerial and ground assault being fought, in simplistic terms, by men who were loyal to a dictator, and men who weren't.

In the midst of it all was Hind, a child spending the last few months of her tweens trying to survive a human rights horror show as Homs erupted and imploded around her.

After leaving the refugee camp Hind was resettled in Kent in 2016 under Britain's Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. Photo / Chris Sisarich

She remembers the tanks on the streets, "so many rockets", and being terrified by the "sounds of war". The fighting was escalating, and her father told the family they had to leave Homs and seek refuge until the conflict was over. Hind can still remember the day she hurriedly packed her bags. She left the hand-drawn art on her bedroom wall and a hairbrush in the drawer beside her bed. She was sure she would return home in a matter of days or weeks, but she couldn't have been more wrong.

The Siege of Homs, as it later became known, would last more than three years. Thousands were killed, including many women and children in the Karm al-Zeitoun massacre, and any attempt by the impotent United Nations to broker a ceasefire was futile.

Finally, when the fighting was over, drone footage of Homs emerged on YouTube. Nothing of colour was left. Homs, a vast city dating back thousands of years and once considered one of Syria's most "restful" cities, was unrecognisable. Hind's family home and everything she had left behind was gone.

The condition Human Devastation Syndrome first emerged in medical vocabularies five years ago. Dr Mohammad Khalid Hamza, a neuropsychologist with the Syrian American Medical Society, began using the term because he could think of no other to accurately describe the level of human suffering endured by Syrian refugees.

Hamza spoke of children who had been orphaned, watched human rights atrocities unfold in front of them, or witnessed the horrific deaths of their parents, siblings or friends. He believes the mental health implications for some Syrian children will eclipse those of PTSD.

Hind when she was a teenager with a younger refugee. It has now been 10 years since the start of the Syrian refugee crisis. Photo / Chris Sisarich

"It is like PTSD on steroids," he said.

Aid agencies working in the Middle East say Syrian children are among the most vulnerable in the world. They report many children caught in the conflict are abused, forced into early marriage, child labour or armed groups.

"It is devastation. Mentally, physically, emotionally, psychologically, cognitively, neuropsychologically," says Hamza.

Hind carries the invisible wounds of war.

She has witnessed atrocities as a young child, and she knows what it is to live every day of her life in terror. She hasn't seen her family for five years. She is an orphan. She doesn't know if any of her school friends are still alive. Nothing is familiar in England. Nothing is relatable. This is surely what Hamza is talking about. Human Devastation Syndrome.

Hind's brother and sister remain in a refugee settlement in Lebanon. Both are married with children, but her sister's two children cannot speak or hear. It is a treatable condition according to a local doctor in Lebanon, but they need money and after 10 years of war, no refugee can afford medical treatment.

Hind tells me she is desperate to help her sister's children and has applied for family reunification on compassionate grounds, but it has been rejected in Britain. Her sister and brother will continue to live in a Lebanese refugee settlement, and Hind will remain in England.

"Is there anything you can do? Can you help them come to England? Please?" she asks.

It is a question I dread. I can't. The money we raised in New Zealand as part of World Vision's Forgotten Millions campaign helped to fund life-saving infrastructure for refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, including important water and sanitation facilities that are still in place now, preventing outbreaks of infectious diseases like cholera. There is little anyone can do to influence a post-Brexit Britain to reunite an isolated Syrian refugee with her two siblings.

There will be no family reunification.

Hind has sent me a photo of two little cherubs. They have jet black hair and their mother's distinctly Syrian features and almond-shaped eyes. Hind's eldest son, Fawaz, is 5 and wears a smart grey blazer and Adam, who is 3, has a matching waistcoat. Hind asks me not to publish the photo of her sons. I agree. It is unspoken between us but we both know that not everyone is supportive of refugee resettlement programmes.

Hind's English is improving and sometimes she responds to me without using Google Translate. Her husband has retrained as a barber and although life is financially challenging, the family is getting by. Hind is safe and she will be looked after in Britain, but I can't help but think about how war has so dramatically changed the course of her young life.

Hind is no longer a teenager incensed by the denial of an education; she is a young woman who wears a cloak of social isolation. She is hopelessly reliant on diplomats and politicians to determine where she will live and if she will ever see a member of her family again. In December, she will officially become a British citizen.

I don't know what to say to her. I don't know how to alleviate her sadness, but I tell her I am incredibly proud of her. She asks if I will come and visit her in Kent. I tell her I will, just as soon as the borders open.

"Welcome! Welcome!" she responds.

What I don't tell her is that she has marked my life. Her photograph still hangs in my home. She has taught me so much, not least the importance of listening because everybody has a story we can learn from. Everybody. And the more we listen, perhaps the less likely we will be to stand by and let history repeat itself.

Written by Rachel Smalley and published in the NZ Herald 13 March, 2021.