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Dignus: mental health of refugees

Dignus, meaning 'worthy', is the Latin origin of the English word 'dignity'. All are born equal. All are worthy of dignity.

A Syrian Kurdish child crying as a policeman searches through bags. (Photo credits: The Citizen)

Crossroads Refugee Run: a day in the life of a refugee

For the first time in my life, I’ve started to understand fear through a refugee camp simulation.

It began with ear-splitting gunshots and the bellowing of armed men. Amid chaos, I was herded into a 'refugee camp' with around 50 others. Application forms for refugee status were scattered by an aid worker, and pens were thrown at us to fill them in. It did not take long for me to realise the form was printed in a strange font, resembling some unfamiliar Middle-Eastern language that appeared like alien squiggles to the untrained eye. Trepidation surged within me as I attempted to decipher the words whilst fumbling for a pen, as everyone else had snatched for one. My breathing started to accelerate.

A man and his troops, suited in military uniform and holding rifles in their hands, were in charge of the camp. In a startling voice, the soldier summoned everyone to line up - men on the right, women on the left. Materials to build a tent for our family unit and a metal tray to collect food and water were thrown at us. He barked at us orders in a bizarre accent: firstly, whenever he blows on his whistle, we are to queue up immediately, regardless the time of day; secondly, we are to keep our identity cards with us at all times in preparation for spot checks; thirdly, we are not to leave our tents at night unless instructed otherwise. The assembly ended on threats of punishing offenders. Upon dismissal, we scurried to build our tents, which were clearly too small to fit a family of five. Soldiers berated us for our sluggishness, and pointed guns at us, just a few feet away.

It was night. The lights in the room were turned off completely. Not a sliver of sun crept into the room as we were confined in a chamber. Soldiers were patrolling outside the tents, their heavy footsteps intertwined with my hurried breaths, breaking the dead silence. Torches were attached to the back of their firearms, which were to be used to survey us in the middle of the night. As I saw their shadows reflected on the thin cloth of my tent enlarge, my eyes shut, praying not to get into harm’s way. I do not believe in supernatural higher beings, but for a split second, my alter ego wished a sovereign god could at least alleviate this suffering. The cacophonous sounds of sturdy military boots pressing onto the hard stone floor neared. There was no escape from their omnipresence. From the opening of my tent came a soldier with his flashlight. He paused to check on us. I huddled in closer to my family unit, grasped my friend’s hand tight as if my life depended on it and held my other hand over my nose to conceal my breathing. It wasn’t until he left did I remember to exhale.

Yet it was too early to rejoice. At midnight, the camp was suddenly enjoined to line up in the dark. The chief, with malice in his raspy voice, announced a weapon had gone missing. He speculated that one of the refugees, or 'rats' as he addressed us, had stolen it. Some of his men began rummaging through tents, whilst others joined him for interrogations and full body inspections on refugees. Lined up on the women’s side, I watched soldiers scream into boys’ faces, importuning them to confess their crime or demanding the name of the offender. Their roars of rage made my heart race. I kept my head low, afraid to be caught looking. The man walked towards the women’s line. He dragged his feet achingly slowly along the formation, eyeing us individually up and down like predators do to their prey.

With a grimace of odium, he approached a girl three bodies away from me. From the corner of my eye, I saw this mountain of a man stand merely inches away from her delicate frame. He put her through third degree, questioning thrice if she knew who had stolen the rifle, increasing his volume each time till his voice strained. The girl shook her head vehemently, as she gripped tightly onto the side of her dress. The man stepped closer to her, leaned down and whispered menacingly, ‘Are you hiding it? Do I have to strip you naked to find out for myself?’ She once again denied the charge. What if he had chosen to interrogate me instead of her? I bit my lip to contain a squeak that had almost so carelessly slipped out.

Daytime. My family unit sent me to fetch sustenance. Upon hearing that we did not have enough money for food, we took off all our jewellery and watches, hoping that such valuables and the little money we had could trade us nourishment. I lined up at the station, identity card and possessions in one hand, metal tray in the other. To avoid drawing attention to myself, I followed what everyone else was doing: no questions, no shuffling around. An armed soldier walked towards me out of nowhere and seized my identity card. The identity check. He yelled at me and demanded me tell him my name. Our eyes locked. His widened with anger. Stuttering, I uttered my full name. He asked me where I was from. I was too petrified to answer. My mind went blank. Nothing came out of my mouth. I froze. I returned his sharp gaze. The air stood still for a few seconds. He robbed me of my dollar bills and left. I was from Syria.

With a slice of bread and some water in my tray, I proceeded to attend classes at the nearby open classroom. Refugees were seated on the ground, facing a teacher and a small chalkboard hanging from a tree while soldiers kept an eye on us. The teacher spoke in a foreign language I could not understand. The drawings on the board looked like land mines. Are they? Is the lesson on how to avoid concealed weaponry? I don’t know. I just thought it ironic, as she cautioned us about external threats when the tigers roam the same cave. Before I had noticed, a soldier walked up behind me, knelt down and grabbed my bread. He had a bite of it and threw the remnants onto the ground. I dared not move, let alone retaliate.

The health condition of my identity dictated that I had high fever. I queued up at the Red Cross Station along with many others. The hut was stuffy and dimly lit - an obvious juxtaposition to the nurse’s tenderness. In contrast to other aid workers and the soldiers, she was a breath of fresh air after the endless suffocation of disquietude. Her nurse’s cap was a halo. I didn’t realise how much I needed grace until I stepped inside the station. After a checkup, she regretted to inform me the chief-in-command had stolen all the medication. Apologetically, I was recommended to ask him politely and maybe, he would spare me some drugs. My heart sank. I would not risk my safety for treatment. Is this why so many refugees die of ‘insufficient medical resources’?

The lights went out again. Anxiety inside me grew. Worries in my head drowned all rationality. I kept forgetting this was just a simulation. I crouched on the floor while the flashlights scanned each tent, keeping a finger over my quivering lips, reminding my family unit not to make any noise. Out of the blue, the soldiers called all the women to line up in the dark of the night. They didn’t say why this was or what was going to happen. I forced my terror-stricken body to move. My limbs barely cooperated but I pushed on and took a spot around the middle of the line hastily. The chief started to pick people, forefinger pointing at a few girls, murmuring to his subordinates, “Take these ones.” A malevolent uncertainty haunted the camp. My sixth sense warned of peril. I kept my head down, avoiding all eye contact. My hijab was the only shred of cloth shielding my dignity. I instinctively tried to make myself invisible to the world, invisible to him so he would not choose me. As he approached, an unscrupulous voice inside my head begged he would walk right past me and take the girl standing next in line. Every step he tread took a second off the ticking time bomb inside my head. Don’t pick me. He lingered in front of the girl to my right and said, ‘This one.’ She and some others were immediately dragged away to a small room. The rest of us were allowed to return to our tents. Mine was the closest to the dubious chamber away at the corner. I held my breath to eavesdrop in quietness. They were distributing condoms to the girls, telling them to ‘hold it and give it to him when he comes in.’ The girl who took my place on account of my selfish prayers fell victim to a dishonorable fate. I had wanted all suffering to end, for some humanity to be restored. But I became the first one to lose sight of it.

And that was merely an iota of the physical and mental turmoil refugees undergo. I was immersed in the simulation for less than an hour. However, for the downtrodden, it’s 24 hours a day, for weeks, months, years, decades. For some, till they no longer see the light of day.

Mental health of refugees

In the wake of refugees’ plight, many develop mental illnesses. The most common diagnoses include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, generalised anxiety and panic attacks. A vast majority of migrants simply cannot leave behind their torturous pasts. Left with no choice, they carry around with them haunting mental scars from the throes of war, conflict and inhumane treatment. Pina Deiana is one of the two psychologists working at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Sicily. Her job is to provide mental support to refugees who have come to seek help. She recalls one of her patients showing symptoms of epilepsy, “Her eyes would roll back into her head and her arms would go completely rigid – but it wasn’t really epilepsy, it was a psychological crisis … It started when she was captured with 400 people in the desert in Sudan during her journey here. The fear was still very strong.”

This patient of hers is not the only one suffering such tormenting conditions. Hundreds and thousands of similar stories are told every day. Regrettably, managing refugees’ mental health has yet to become a priority. Even with the knowledge that mental illnesses could ‘compromise physical health, parental functioning and the wellbeing of children and other family members’, as pointed out by Richard Stott, clinical psychologist and specialist in anxiety disorders and trauma, negligence seems to be the default response; or as Pieter Ventevogel, senior mental health officer at UN refugee agency UNHCR puts it, ‘overlooked amid all the needs that are vying for attention.’

The truth is, the promise of resettlement and protection from previous atrocities is hardly fulfilled when refugees still live in a cage of fear and horror in their heads. They may have escaped war-zones, dodged bullets, yet the prevailing battlefield corrupts all consciousness. Distress is bleeding into everyday life. This is far from emancipation. This is far from leading a dignified life. Refugees are hardly living - they are surviving.

The issue at hand is pressing, imminent. Countries have pledged to welcome refugees with open arms. It is in their duty to understand refugee’s basic needs and deliver them. After all, what good are resources to build a home when one has lost the willpower to craft?

Is the developed world, even with its plentiful capacity, going to offer up empty vows? Only time will tell.


Ariel was born and raised in Hong Kong. She is an active debater and public speaker in the Hong Kong circuit and has competed overseas in Canada and Singapore. She is also an ex-member of the World Individuals Public Speaking and Debating Championships Team Hong Kong 2015. It is her aim to share her passion for global affairs with people from all corners of the world. Ariel is particularly interested in gender and LGBTQ issues as well as Chinese affairs, having had the opportunity to speak about them at high-stake tournaments. She is also fascinated by psychology and is a dancer.

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