Syrian refugees in America: The forgotten psychological wounds of the stress of migration


Two refugee children play at Tolan Park, a research and treatment center in Detroit, the site of the author’s research. PHOTO/David Dalton/Wayne State University, CC BY-SA

War in Syria and the refugee crisis have been the subject of a heated debate in United States politics, leading to a travel ban and drastic reduction in the number refugees to the U.S. this year. We occasionally hear about brutal deaths and starvation of civilians in Syria from the news, as a far concept happening in another world. This is a group of people who may justifiably feel betrayed by the world.

But what do we know about those who made it to the U.S. before the travel ban? How hard were they hit by the horrifying experience of war, torture and living in refugee camps? And how are they coping with years of exposure to trauma and stress prior to arrival in the U.S. and the stress of migration?

Our research team, Stress, Trauma, and Anxiety Research Clinic STARC at Wayne State University, has been exploring the psychological impact of traumatic experiences in Syrian adult and children refugees. We believe our findings underscore the need for immediate attention to the mental health of this population.

Their experience before landing in the US

Before the civil war, Syria was a relatively stable country. In a short period, Syrian civilians found themselves in the chaos of a very confusing disaster. Access to food, water and medical care became extremely limited, and people survived – and still do – day by day.

It is hard to know which group is fighting which, and what they want from civilians within their momentary territory. Children and adults are often exposed to explosions, direct threat of death, sight or news of death, mutilation, or torture of their loved ones.

Those who had enough resources to leave, and the luck of surviving the flight, ended up in refugee camps in Turkey, Greece or other nearby countries. There, they often lived in terrible conditions for a couple of years, having left their dead or living family members and belongings in Syria.

A very small group, who have gone through a detailed vetting, have ended up in European countries, and a much lower number have in the U.S. (less than 0.5 percent). Those who end up in the U.S. have been in a camp for about a couple of years. So, despite what some may believe, getting a refugee status in the U.S. was not easy before the travel ban.

What is post-traumatic stress disorder?

Post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a consequence of exposure to extreme traumatic experiences such as combat, torture, assault, rape, robbery or serious motor vehicle accidents. Such experiences switch the brain to “survival mode,” attempting to avoid re-traumatization. Symptoms include high anxiety, avoiding reminders of trauma (sights, sounds, smells, memories), emotional numbness, hyper-vigilance, frequent intrusive memories of the traumatic experience, nightmares and flashbacks.

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