The ongoing refugee crisis in the Middle East has gained a lot of traction. In recent times, significant efforts have been expended to improve the state of the refugee crisis with humanitarian aid flowing in from world over. People are increasingly coming to grips with the reality of the situation. Several individuals and organisations are heartily donating to the cause to ensure that refugees adequately receive basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter.
However, a scarcely discussed aspect of the refugee crisis has been its mental health implications. The refugee crisis have been labelled by Dr. Essam Daod, as a “mental health catastrophe”. The severity of this problem merits a closer examination.
The Psychological State of Affairs
Each refugee person who has endured the journey of escape, carries with him different sufferings and traumas. Many have faced large-scale atrocities during the war. These include but are not limited to families being lost, displacement, to name a few. The difficulties are experienced at three stages. First, the pre-migration stage, where the violence and destruction caused by the war in their home countries, causes them to flee. This exposure puts them at a high risk of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other depressive disorders. Second, during migration, where long, arduous journeys are endured by road or sea to seek haven in other countries. During this time, persons often spend days without basic necessities like food or water. There have been instances of boats drowning and resultantly persons losing family and loved ones. Resistance by several countries having closed borders to welcome refugees further adds to their perils. They are expected to live in refugee camps, which are often substandard, for long spells of time. Third, the post-migration stage where even after they have been accepted by a country, they may find it hard to adapt to a new social and cultural setting, and may face discrimination on grounds of race, religion or language in such country.
A rather unfortunate feature of this crisis has been that the victims are largely children. Children who are at a very vulnerable stage in terms of their brain development. They live in hostile environments away from homes, devoid of their friends and communities amidst so many other constraints. Their worlds become restricted to their challenging lives at the refugee camps and they grow up without hope, love and visibility. These times have the potential of amplifying their trauma and there exists a strong risk of them being eternally scarred and emotionally damaged. It’s in our hands to win them again.
The Power of Words
Letters of Love, a youth-led international non-profit organisation aims at spreading smiles to refugee children through a handwritten letter. Letters of Love wants to infuse joy through a rather useful and readily available tool, words. As Yehuda Berg puts it, “Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity.”
The letters which are written by thousands of people across the world comprise of positive affirmations of love, courage and comfort. The messages often portray the recipients (i.e. the refugee children) as brave and confident beings, and the senders as their friends and well-wishers looking out for them. The letters serve as a testament of solidarity that there exist persons in the world at large who value them. The objective is to reinforce faith in their abilities and help them create a sense of self. These letters which are written in their home language also help establish an emotional connect. The letters seek to remind them that they are made of sterner stuff than any violent war. The intention is to empower the children so they can rebuild their lives with predominantly fond memories.
Below are a few accounts of persons describing the work and impact of Letters of Love:
Zeynep İclal İncioğluIex, Humanitarian Worker and Assistant Community Services Officer UNHCR Gaziantep, Turkey says:
“I have been following the movement since 2015 and I am quite amazed by the spontaneous gesture of goodwill, hope and friendship in order to reach (Syrian) refugee children in different parts of the world, all the way. I like the pure simplicity of the action and the sense of creating bonds, through letters. Thank you, Letters of Love, for solidarity and joy!”
Ayşe GÖKÇEK, Peacebuilding Officer (Multi-Service Center for Syrian Refugees), Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants [ASAM] writes:
“The beauty of this project is that it shows how you can reach out to someone you don’t even know and even though they are at the other side of the world and somehow make a connection. I am grateful to be a part of it and really glad to see that each year it reaches to more and more children, makes them smile and connects them to people and geographies that are unknown to them.”
Houry Pilibbossian, Executive Director, YMCA — Syrian Armenians writes:
“Letters of Love was an opportunity to teach empathy and sympathy to our members. All of them are Syrian-Armenians who moved to Armenia due to the ongoing war. Most of them share the same feelings with any Syrian citizen that left the country, and had to go through the hardship of moving and integration. The letters they wrote were very emotional and heartwarming. I could see the spark in every kids eye and the happy faces they had. We hope our letter will draw a smile on every single kid’s face and we hope to see them happy.”
Towards Happiness and More
While the physical body heals itself over time, the childhood of refugees remains broken, and providing them with psychosocial support is as important as providing them with food, clothing and shelter. A positive psychological intervention such as a letter has the potential to decrease the trauma of their sufferings. We want the positive memories to oust the rather negative ones. The idea is to eventually ensure that the traumatic events have no power over them by constantly inundating their lives with messages of love and hope.
While a letter cannot commensurate with access to mental health services, Letters of Love simply seeks to imbibe a sense of hope. Hope that they can keep going and look forward to the future. Instill a sense of belief that there are people rooting for them, that there is enough good in the world and ample opportunity awaiting them, giving them the propensity to heal in a positive environment.
We often vigorously participate in geo-political debates over the crisis concerning the extent of American or Russian intervention in Syria or the end of Assad’s despotic rule amongst others. As important as these discussions are, influencing foreign military decisions remain far beyond our control. We are helpless in that space. What we can do is something more minimalistic. Make ourselves aware. Donate to organsations engaged in providing refugees aid. Send a letter of love and bring a smile. As at Letters of Love, our oft-cited belief reads: “Whatever we can, with whatever we have, wherever we are”.