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Managing mental health for refugees in Greece: 'People need time to mourn'

TAGS: Migration, Health

Sam * is a Syrian mental health and psychosocial support trainer for the International Medical Corps in Greece.

"There is no such thing as an average day in my role as a psychosocial support trainer in the ever-changing and chaotic environment that Greece has become.

But my story begins like that of many others - fleeing my home in Syria to seek a better future in Europe.

Already having been detained and tortured twice for humanitarian work in Syria and fearing for my safety, I fled to Turkey in hope of being able to continue helping others.

Unfortunately I found that having fled from Syria and having a degree in international relations and vast experience of working with various NGOs does not guarantee asylum.

Stateless, I eventually left Turkey to cross the Mediterranean to Greece – a crossing that has already taken more than 400 lives this year alone.

For me, the worst part was hiding. Like every other Syrian refugee, I was only looking for safety – and yet I spent two months hiding, jumping at the sight of small animals, terrified of meeting another person.

We made it to Serbia, but things only got worse from there. Somebody overheard me and my companion speaking Arabic at a bus stop in Belgrade, and at 2am the next day we were kidnapped.

For a day these people, who I was convinced were under the influence of drugs, tortured us in every way they could imagine.

When the effects wore off they realized what they were doing and fled, abandoning us to find our way to the nearest hospital.

I did make it to Austria eventually, and then to the Netherlands where I was finally granted asylum.

However my journey was far from over.

Battleground

"I have always felt the need to help people, and as Syrians continued risking their lives trying to find sanctuary in Europe, I knew exactly where I belonged.

As soon as I got my documents I applied for jobs with NGOs helping Syrian refugees, and left the Netherlands for Greece.

I go from island to island, training people in psychological first aid and supporting those providing psychosocial services.

It's chaotic. Things change every day and it is difficult to predict what lies in store for these people.

Military hotspots have been popping up all over the country, making it ever more difficult for NGOs to access those who need our help the most. Many of these hotspots lack sanitation facilities and drinking water.

There is no war in Greece, but to me it is a battleground all the same.

Time to mourn

"Everybody wants to help, but they don't know that good intentions sometimes do more harm than good when it comes to mental health.

That's what I am here for – to make sure that the mental health programs are adapted to fit the cultural context.

In Europe, it is acceptable to help somebody get over their grief by distracting them or trying to cheer them up.

But in my culture ignoring grief is considered shameful – we need time to mourn. The people getting off the boats in Greece - traumatized by the journey, homesick and often separated from their friends and families - are rarely given that time.

Being both a Syrian refugee and a mental health worker, I understand why people might fear refugees coming into Europe.

It's the same fear I experienced on my own journey all that time ago - the fear of the unknown. Even if one single person stops being afraid, I will know I have done my job."

* Sam asked to omit his surname for safety reasons.

[Thomson Reuters Foundation]

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