The brutal and vicious realities of war are an everyday occurrence for the people of Iraq. Violent outbreaks have caused persistent and abundant visual images of injury, death, kidnapping and torture to the citizens of the country. Physical effects of the war are damaging and apparent; but the impact of the emotional and psychological damages that the war in Iraq is causing has gone unaided, until now.
A new program has recently been developed by Catholic Relief Services to provide psychological treatment for the Iraqi refugees who have experienced these traumatic events first hand.
“There were cases of persons, someone from their family was assassinated in front of their eyes. We have many children also who were kidnapped or in front of them they saw severe scenes of torture,” Isaaze Saade, employee of Caritas Lebanon, said.
Six-year-old Omar was kidnapped in Iraq. He was captured because, even though he is a Christian, his name is Muslim. With the religious wars raging, Omar was imprisoned with numerous other children of the same name.
“He has been refusing, until now his parents call him by his name, so he changed his name. He hates his name,” Saade said.
Cases like Omar’s are not uncommon and the Iraqi Refugee Trauma Relief Program provides counseling, medical attention, education and psychological follow- up to the citizens of Iraq who have been a victim of torture, imprisonment, kidnapping or a witness to any of these events. While addressing these issues are imperative to the psychological well being of refugees, they do not always actively seek the help that they need.
“If we remove the idea of a diagnosis from the idea of trauma and just really help people to understand that trauma unfortunately is an effect of the many unfortunate consequences of war. It’s not just about removing the stigma but trying to give people a reason to understand that what they have is not something of a deficit but a consequence of circumstances under which they have no control,” Arlene Flaherty, CRS representative, said. Flaherty was instrumental in initiating the program.
Even though there was some hesitation from Iraqis to go through with the program, since its start this year it has gained acceptance and the number of clients has grown so significantly that there was a need to hire an additional psychologist.
The trauma programs are organized into groups that relate to the experience of each Iraqi. Victims of rape, torture, kidnapping and imprisonment all have a forum where they can gather to share their story, listen to others and move past their painful encounters.
The Iraqi culture places great importance on community, so CRS uses this as a tool for the program and provides training for Iraqis who wish to assist as counselors in the program.
“There’s a real big strength, which is the strength of their family and the strength of their tribe, their group, their town. So it’s really helpful to work with the families together, to help each family to be able to understand how to support family members and to help each community of Iraqis to understand trauma, so those communities can actually help support people who are in fact, traumatized,” Flattery said.
Iraqis who are fleeing from the turbulent state of war, often seek safety in other countries, but their struggles do not end there. Refugees in Lebanon cannot legally hold jobs and have difficulty keeping up with living expenses. Any refugee who is found working, runs the risk of becoming imprisoned. This can bestow a helpless feeling upon the refugees, especially men, and may cause them to enter a state of depression.
Refugees entering the United States do not have it much easier. Even if one gets passed the tough immigration laws and obtains a job, there is still difficulty adjusting to American society and breaking through prejudiced mindsets of others.
“I think Iraqis who are accepted for resettlement in the States are facing a lot of difficulties of integration and are really suffering a lot, so for us it is very important for the American people to understand that this person came from a different culture and to welcome them in a better way,” Saade said.
Even though the Trauma Relief program has been providing aid and treatment, war is still lingering in Iraq and atrocities are being committed each day. Leaders of the program believe that a deeper understanding is needed between countries to end the catastrophic events that are essentially causing the trauma.
“In the long run we are people, and even though we may be on different sides of the conflict we share a common humanity that suffers and is vulnerable to the violence of war. We need to be able to support Iraqi refugees who are trying to get home and who are also traumatized. You know to that extent that we begin to heal these wounds of war in each other so that we will really be able to achieve the outcome that we want, which is deep peace-building between the people of Iraq and the people of the United States,” Flaherty said.