Syrian war and its hidden psychological wounds

by Regina Catrambone | MOAS
Wednesday, 16 August 2017 09:00 GMT

Ramez on board the Phoenix, July 2017. The name has been changed to protect the identity. MOAS

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

There are wounds invisible to the eye but just as serious – those at a psychological and emotional level, affecting both children and adults

I met Ramez on board the Phoenix last month after he was saved during a day of multiple rescues, and I was immediately moved by his appearance. Despite his young age he looked like a scholar with his backpack and thick glasses. His smile and willingness to help hid his losses and suffering caused by the war.

He is 26 and comes from Damascus, which he had to flee due to the civil war that has ravaged Syria since 2011. When the conflict began, Ramez was enrolled at university like many young people all over the world. He used to study, attend lessons and go out with friends. He was looking forward to graduating, finding a good job and building a decent life. He hoped that the war would end as soon as possible.

His family members were very close, and their life was calm. “Normal”, he said talking about past times of peace. All of a sudden, peace stopped being part of their normal lives and was replaced by war. Their lives, their routine, were overwhelmed by the noise of gunshots, bombs being launched, wounded people shouting and survivors mourning and digging through the debris. War had thus become “normal”, together with the smell of death, fear and snipers spreading terror.

Ramez is a bit older than my daughter, but he has experienced enough much horror in life to lose his innocence. On board the Phoenix, after rescues are completed and urgent medical assistance provided, we try to know our guests to understand their background. From his words you could feel the hidden wounds of war and the burden of conscription, forcing many young men to flee Syria if they don’t want to pick up weapons after putting away their university books.

He told us that he had lost more than 30 relatives and friends, not even counting university companions who died because of the bombings. Bombs were falling in every place at every time, even inside his university, and one day he found himself trapped during an attack to his faculty. His mother got to the point that she did not wake him up for university in the mornings because she was scared of losing him: it was more important to keep her son alive than for him to complete his studies, as he wouldn’t be unable to find a decent job in a war-torn country anyway. After his graduation, he experienced first-hand how impossible a future in Syria was: the war had destroyed all chances to find a job.

Meanwhile, more and more people died among his beloved ones, and he began to fear being close with people because he was scared he would soon lose them. After completing his university, he started feeling the same fear his mother used to have for him and prevented her from leaving home because he thought that she would never come back. The general situation was also getting worse, and fleeing Syria was more and more difficult because no Arab country issued visas to Syrians.

Ramez understood that he was not just a victim of a war that he had not chosen, but he was also unwelcome in most countries, except Sudan. So, he went to Sudan before starting a desperate journey in the hands of human smugglers through the desert, Libyan prisons and the sea. But, by coming on board the Phoenix, he started a new process to build his new life far from bombings.

The Syrian civil war is not only responsible for an unprecedented number of internally displaced persons and refugees seeking sanctuary in neighbouring countries, but also for many deaths and wounds on bodies which have been marked by the atrocious consequences of this conflict.

There are also wounds invisible to the eye but just as serious – those at a psychological and emotional level, affecting both children and adults in different ways.

Major disorders impact sleeping routines: children report of nightmares and problems in sleeping at night, while adults experience similar problems due to their anxiety in facing their new, precarious existence which is so different from their past life.

From a medical point of view, we talk about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is exacerbated by extreme violence or torture. It still persists after the triggering situation is over. Even after people flee their country and are no longer exposed to torture, violence is perceived as a constant threat by those who have experienced it.

Moreover, if we consider the appalling living conditions in overcrowded refugee camps or disorganized reception centres, we can easily understand that urgent measures are needed to avoid deeper wounds and more severe damage. We must focus on returning to the Syrian people their dignity and hope.

In the end, I share Ramez’s appeal for peace, so that “all wars end all over the world, as they represent the first and last destruction of the people, humanity and future.”

*the name has been changed to protect the identity

Regina Catrambone is MOAS’ Co-Founder and Director.