The Seventh Year of War
As the Syrian conflict makes its way through it’s seventh year, the toll being taken on civilians continues to mount. The numbers are quite staggering; estimates of the dead range from 300,000 to more than half a million. Around one third of the country’s entire pre-conflict population (21.5million) are now internally displaced (6.6million) while around 5million Syrians have left the country as refugees, seeking respite in neighbouring countries and beyond. A report by the Syrian Center for Policy Research (2014) found that a staggering 11.5% of Syria’s total population had been killed or injured over the course of the conflict. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could enjoy Eid against this backdrop.
Obstacles to Celebrating Eid
While some camps do try to maintain a celebratory atmosphere of sorts, praying the special Eid prayers and gifting children with sweets and treats, within others there is no trace of the holiday at all. A few mothers and fathers who I spoke to talked of not having celebrated Eid since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in March of 2011. It is difficult to imagine summoning up the spirit for celebrating after having lived through one of the nastiest conflicts in recent times and ending up thousands of miles from home. “We haven’t so much as smelt Eid in the last 5 years” declared one father with a croak in his voice.
One of the fundamental aspects of a holiday, particularly the Muslim feast of Eid, that can be enjoyed by rich and poor alike, is the spending of time with family. The sad reality is that many of the refugees in Greece (and beyond) are isolated from family completely, while the luckier ones have a family member or two with them. Many individuals speak of their family being completely scattered; a brother in Germany, a sister in Turkey, with parents back in Syria. One Thessaloniki-based father spoke of having a son in Germany, a son in Sweden and a wife back in Turkey. I asked a 16 year old Kurdish boy what he wanted to do with his freedom once he’d been given his residency papers, expecting him to tell me about the career he hoped to pursue or the boyish endeveaour he wanted to chase; “reunite my family” was his answer.
One of the most universal things that I found being mentioned as a hope for the refugees was the dream of having a home to call their own. Many did not want to celebrate Eid until they could do so in a place called home. One man actually continually declined medical treatment as he did not want to start any process like this until he could do so from home. And contrary to what some would have you believe, most of the refugees I talked to would give a right arm to return to their original homes in Syria and Iraq if it was under the context of peace, “There is no place better than your homeland” is a phrase I heard over and over again. The temporary, disposable nature of the camps makes it extremely difficult to call it home or to celebrate within it.
As mental health issues remain untreated they grow in complexity and become more pervasive. While some psychological services do exist, these are few and far between and significantly underequipped to deal with the volume and extent of what is facing this population. Consider that 11.5% of the total Syrian population have been killed or injured in this conflict. How many then have experienced the loss of a loved one (or loved ones)? How many have come under fire? How many have been terrified at the thought that they were about to come under fire? How many have heard bombs exploding, buildings collapsing and human beings wailing? Post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety issues are rampant. All the textbooks in the world cannot prepare you for the feeling you get when you sit across from a 6 year old sweetheart of a girl who is wetting the bed at night and is unable to sleep due to the nightmares of war that await her. More organic afflictions such as psychosis and schizophrenia can be deeply fuelled by the stresses of war. The dire conditions in some of the camps can then provide the perfect fermenting ground for psychological disorders to grow for a population of people who have experienced the severe traumas of war and displacement; a perfect storm.
The sheer challenge facing us makes it critically important not to lose hope. There are hugely positive things to bare in mind. I witnessed a lot of beauty in the camps. The undying relentlessness of parents to do their best to see that their children have a better life is alive and well. Parents can find such imaginative and resourceful ways to cater for their children’s needs and wants. I seen dozens of practitioners from all corners of the world who have taken time off, mostly at their own expense, to come here and offer whatever skills they have, day in, day out, in an attempt to better the lives of the refugees in Greece. The care and empathy shown, as well as the bonds that have been made, is a cause for hope. The way in which Greece has done a lot to attempt to cater for the refugees, despite having it’s back broken due to the economic crash of the last decade is also noteworthy. Most importantly, we must not forget the ability of our next generation to heal and grow despite what they are suffering from now. In order for this process of regeneration to be allowed to occur, we have to provide them with the space and conditions in which a healthy healing can take place.
Our Shared Responsibility
Keep your brothers and sisters in your hearts and heads, and open your wallets to them if you can’t give them your time.
- Donate money to the organisations who are working with refugees on the ground, particularly in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Greece.
- Lobby your local officials to open your country to them for resettlement. Some countries are already doing their fair share, a select few are doing more than their share while many are shamefully dilly dallying – of the 60,000 unaccompanied minors who have made their way to Europe, the UK has settled a paltry 20.
- Work with the refugees who have already been resettled in your area. And unless you’re living in Yemen or Gaza, chances are there will be Syrian or Iraqi refugees near you. Look into what organisations are working with them and offer your services to them. More than your money, they need your time and warmth.
- If there are no viable options to do this, take the initiative and forge your own path in this regard, taking that small step towards making someone exiled and vulnerable to feel connected and welcomed. The smallest of gestures can be incredibly meaningful and can allow something great to blossom.