The invisible war: The battle for refugee children’s mental health
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Though their footing might be on more solid grounds, the rockiness of refugees’ journey's don’t end once they have reached safe lands. The deafening sounds of shelling and bombings became hushed and the muffled speech of foreign languages take their place. The urgency for survival never goes away. Far too often, those who have accepted refugees into their mix expect them to instantaneously mesh into their adopted society, leaving the horrors of war behind. As I’ve discovered while working with refugee children in Canada, far too often, this is not the case.
THE STORY WITHIN
I had the opportunity to see first hand exactly how the trauma of war can travel and take residence in a new country while volunteering at an organization aiding refugees with legal matters - as well as helping parents with daycare while they looked for jobs.
Their children, who varied in ages, came from all over the globe, truly cementing that war and destitution do not discriminate. Anwar*, 9, was particularly memorable. He was an imposing figure, despite his small wiry frame, with many averting their gaze when his dark brown eyes stared them down. Intimidation became the name of his game and picking fights was how Anwar would enforce his place in the provisional hierarchy.
After a particularly violent incident, I asked about Anwar’s background. My colleague, Lula* told me he had come from Syria where his home was shelled, killing many members of his family. Then followed years of instability, with Anwar’s family temporarily settling in one of the sprawling refugees camps I had become so accustomed to seeing on television. In an environment where the notion “survival of the fittest” dominates, I imagine Anwar’s hostility was much more beneficial than meekness and vulnerability.
Lula continued to paint a grim picture. Anwar may have left the horrific conditions of camps for a new life in Canada, but he was now thrust into a society who forgot his youth and experiences, and saw danger instead. Stigmatization and discrimination had become his newest battle. The young boy’s brain hadn’t yet calibrated to recognize he’d reached a “safe country” because in Anwar’s mind, he hadn’t.
When people talk about war - they often think of the destruction of buildings and death tolls. What is often forgotten, is that children’s mental health is a casualty of war as well. The difficulties refugee children face do not cease to exist once they are settled. They still carry with them the vivid imagery of destruction and death that they have physically left behind.
THE ROAD TO REHABILITATION
Mental health should be treated as a priority, especially for such a vulnerable group of people.
My time as a volunteer has taught me that although refugee children have gone through situations I cannot even begin to fathom, their age should not be forgotten. One of the many joys of childhood is that their young brains are still being wired and with the help of professionals and therapy, they can live a fulfilling and rich life too.
Deep psychological scars require attentiveness and care in order to mend. But please keep in mind, trauma can manifest itself in various ways; children are not a monolith nor are they afflicted in the same manner.
It has been a year since I last saw little Anwar. Some days, my mind wanders and I wonder what he is doing. Has he settled into his new life a bit more? Is he enjoying his new school? I returned to the organization I volunteered at a few weeks ago, asking about Anwar’s whereabouts. Lula simply shrugged. His mother had stopped coming to appointments so they hadn’t seen Anwar recently. My mind automatically went to the worst possible outcome; another refugee child slipping through the cracks simply because they weren't receiving care tailored to their needs.
I do not know what will come of Anwar or what his future holds. But I do know that there are thousands of children who are in the same shoes and they all deserve to know that their new home is ready to accept them as they are, not how they’ve been.
Refugee children may have had their roots ripped from the soil they call home but we must show them that wherever they may replant themselves, they will have all the resources they need to flourish and prosper.
*The names herein have been changed to protect the privacy of those mentioned