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For Syrian Refugees, a Mental Health Emergency

A psychiatrist recounts a trip to Jordan, spreading teachable techniques in attempts to arm refugees amid a devestating crisis.
James Gordon, The Atlantic

When I pause for a moment, they form around me like the shades of the dead come to stand with Odysseus on his visit to the underworld. There are close to 100,000 Syrian refugees in Zaatari, the U.N. administered camp in the north of Jordan. That's almost three times as many as when I visited in November. 200,000 more Syrians live among the Jordanian population. For the last ten days, 3,000 have been coming across the border each day. The U.N. expects a total of 650,000 to 700,00 by the end of June, and at least as many more will fill the camps and live among the general population in Turkey and Lebanon.

Men, women, and the children they carry press faces against the wire fences that limit access to the scattered Zaatari tent and trailer clinics. Gaining admittance, people jam into the small open waiting spaces. Many more--women in long dark coats, heads covered, men in dusty jeans and short jackets--move slowly up and down the dirt tracks that separate the rows of U.N. tents that have provided inadequate shelter in the cold, rainy winter.

Men pull up their pant legs to show me bullet wounds. Women raise listless children towards me, their mouths squeezed open to reveal tonsils swollen with pus. They gesture at others who hide their faces in the skirts of their coats. "She does not sleep and wets herself," one mother says. "He cries every time he hears a man's voice, thinking it's a soldier," another tells me. "This one who has lost his father," says another, gesturing to an eight-year-old boy, "will not leave me, even for a minute."

My team from the Center for Mind Body Medicine includes: Jamil, the Palestinian psychologist who runs our program in Gaza; Lee-Ann, our International Program Manager; and Nisreen, a Syrian psychologist who wants to bring our work to her people. We are hoping to make our program of population-wide psychological healing -- through mind-body techniques like meditation and guided imagery, self-expression in words, drawings, and movement, and group support -- available to the fleeing Syrians in Jordan and to the clinicians and humanitarian workers who are trying to help them.

In Zaatari and in meetings with refugees who live in Amman, I am asked unanswerable questions. "When will there be international intervention?" is often the first one, and "where are the blankets?" the second. "We love the Americans," says one courtly older man, "why don't you love us?" And, almost always, after the questions, they clamor to tell stories in which death and torture seem as commonplace as headaches, hypertension, or anxiety in a U.S. medical practice.


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