Ahmad and I met by chance in Moria refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece. He was waiting at the diaper distribution center to pick up diapers for his infant son, and as we chatted, I quickly learned I was talking to one of Moria’s most important mental health experts. He recently started running mental health seminars for his fellow refugees in the camp every Sunday night. Ahmad was a licensed psychologist in his home country, Syria, for 8 years.
I told him that I would love to learn more in depth about his seminars. Would he be willing to talk to me about it?
“Of course.” he said. A few days later we met for coffee.
≈ Story by Ceci Sturman
How long have you been in Moria?
My family and I have been in Moria for 4 months. Before we were in Turkey for about one year. We left Syria a while ago.
Can you tell me about your previous experience as a psychologist?
I have been a psychologist for 8 years. I had a counseling center in Syria that doubled as a center for children with Down's Syndrome and Autism. After I fled Syria, I worked as a psychologist in a major organization in Turkey. I am trained in relaxation and counseling exercises.
So then, what is your psychological perspective of Moria?
Moria is a tragedy because people are without hope. And me too. At first, when I came here I went to counseling (with Medecins Sans Frontieres) for my PTSD. Now, I am still experiencing it, but I want to help people with theirs.
I want to use my skills and do counseling in the camp, but I can't because nowhere is private and safe. But people come to talk to me and I counsel them anyways.
In July 2018, Ahmad was organizing and leading mental health seminars in collaboration with HELP Organization and a few other refugee leaders.
At the time of this interview, there had been three sessions of around 50 adults attending, with an equal ratio of males and females.
The sessions were translated in English, Farsi, Arabic and French, as their audience consisted of multiple different ethnic groups.
How did you decide there was a need for these mental health seminars?
The psychologists here are only for assessments and not treatment. In the camps, only special cases like psychosis or active self-harm receive serious attention. So I want to help with everything else. I want to help these people.
People tell me they lied on their psychological assessment because they think if they are honest and say they have mental problems then, because that paper is permanent and will follow them everywhere, they will not be able to leave the camp, to receive jobs, to drive.
I clean those lies in my seminars. I tell them psychological problems are very normal. We must be honest when we speak about our problems because we need help.
I tell people everything. I tell them, "We are refugees. We are suffering. We lived a big tragedy."
What are the topics you cover in your powerpoints?
I have created dozens of powerpoints to present on topics such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks, OCD, PTSD, ADHD, and phobias.
These presentations include definitions, symptoms, and how to address these topics with those closest to you. Do people generally know of these ideas before you talk to them about it?
No, not usually.
You could have chosen not to help people with this knowledge and instead just sit and wait for your asylum. Why do you help?
I help because I hurt.
I want to help with my knowledge because otherwise I could do nothing. In Dante’s Inferno, the darkest place in hell is for those who keep quiet. So I try to raise awareness as much as I can.
That’s all we can do. Raise awareness.
≈ July 2018, Lesvos, Greece
Ceci Sturman is a writer in NYC. She studied refugee relations in university and has since covered the Burundian Refugee Crisis for World Vision Tanzania and worked in the Crisis Campaigns department at Amnesty International USA.
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