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Iba's Story: Human Smuggling and Syrian Refugee Mental Health

Copyright: Bigstock, 2017

Iba’s Story

The drinking water changed to a sickly yellow and neighborhood gossip whispered it was probably poisoned, 16-year old Iba said, but her family did not take it as an omen and flee. Nor did they leave their home after the Assad regime’s bombs bombarded their neighborhood and electrical current no longer reached them. Still they did not leave after her father, a baker, was detained and tortured for days. But it was the day Iba’s twin sister, Ibadah, went missing her father’s resolve to die in his homeland was broken. For him, it was painful to say goodbye to the past, but impossible to say goodbye to the future.

Ibadah left for work as usual that morning. Unlike Iba who she called a “thinker,” Ibadah believes “what will happen will happen.” Shrugging off her mother’s pleadings and undaunted by the chaos around her, she went to work each day in a salon a few miles away from their home.

But this fateful morning, “what will happen” happened. Two terrorists on a suicide mission detonated car bombs during what once was rush hour. A veil of jet black smoke draped the streetscape and the stench of burning tires, vehicles, and the burning flesh of corpses and the living alike hung in the air. Iba’s family called Ibadah for hours with ever-mounting desperation and dread.

Terror, panic and resignation has been felt in equal measures by nearly every Syrian family. In Iba’s country, it is normal now for families to feel the shock of the sudden death of a father, a mother, a brother or a twin sister, but to feel no surprise.

Was it was her family’s turn? Hours later, the longest hours of their lives, at last they heard Iba’s voice. She was alive, uninjured, and soon would be home.

Those desperate hours were paralyzing, but in the minutes to follow, the girls’ father moved without hesitation paid $60,000 dollars to a smuggler and prepared to leave Syria for good.

He would not say goodbye to the future.

The exodus from Syria and Afghanistan is neither calculation nor choice, it is the last resort. Children are the first to leave on the perilous journeys. In societies like Syria, dwindling savings are dedicated first to preserving a family’s legacy; when parents realize they are helpless to protect their children, it is that realization that moves them to seek out smugglers.

But these young refugees must rely on smugglers to negotiate the way through transit points, safe houses and refugee camps in places like Calais, Turkey, Jordan, Greece, and Libya.

“How do you find a smuggler you trust?” I ask Aylan, 22-year old Syrian refugee. “Let’s say you’re a refugee,” he tells me, “you leave the money with someone at home. When you reach your destination, the smuggler will take the money from your local friend. If you don't get to your destination, your family will take the money back. This is the way it goes. This is how the law of smuggling works.”

This unwritten law of smuggling seldom works as advertised by the touts who roam neighborhoods and camps. For instance, unlike Aylan for whom the smuggler was a friendly face from one’s community, to Arbaz they are illicit profiteers.

For him, smugglers’ law was broken: “My brother had given 10,000 dollars to smugglers, and I had kept $450 for food and drink along the way.” But when he reached the town of Banderabast, Arbaz was robbed by someone he suspects was in league with the smuggler.

“You don’t go to the smuggler, the smuggler comes to you,” explains Aylan. “In Italia, we were in station and the smugglers would come to us and ask us, ‘Would you like to Germany? Would you like to go to Panama? Would you like to come to London? Then someone told me I need 1000 euros to Milan from Germany, so I said ‘kalya’ (fuck no), I’ll find my own way from Milan.’”

Refugees assume the smuggler they hire will shepherd them the entire way, but in fact, they will be handed off to middlemen, from smuggler to smuggler along an illicit Pony Express, many times before they arrive at their destination, if they arrive at all.

Worldwide, war, violence and persecution are causing 22.5 million refugees to cross borders to seek asylum. Nearly half of Syria’s pre-conflict population have been forced to flee from their homes estimates the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

UNHCR [1]. When only clandestine methods are available, people like Iba, Aylan and Arbaz throw in their lot with dubious smugglers as there is less danger with them than with waiting for a safe harbor through legal means.

Research by the EU’s law enforcement body discovered through interviews with 1,500 asylum-seekers, refugees and economic migrants that 90 per cent of them had paid a criminal gang to reach Europe. In 2015 alone there were 900,000 irregular migrants with human smugglers profiting $3bn and $6bn [2].

Article 1A(1) UNHCR Convention, 1951 defines a refugee as:

Someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

The persecution the U.N. describes fuels their exodus but the failure of the countries that compose the U.N. to create legal pathways to safety for refugees cedes control to smugglers.

The memory of 3-year old Alan Kurdi [3], found washed up on a Turkish beach, is fading among so many horrific images of the civil war. Just as the 38 Central American migrants trapped in a tractor-trailer[4] and the ten among them who took their last breaths of 115 degree air in the back of truck in a San Antonio Walmart parking lot will soon be forgotten as well. Most deaths in the course of irregular journeys cannot be forgotten because they rarely make headlines in the first place.

The Trauma and Mental Health of Refugees Blog Synopsis:

We see them trapped in battlefields that were once cities and towns, piled upon one another on unseaworthy vessels, and herded into camps. And sometimes we see their dead bodies and the faces of their grief-stricken families. But who are they? What are their names? And what does the trauma they suffer mean to their futures and ours?

I am a professional psychologist specializing in the interpersonal dynamics of immigrants and I am an immigrant myself. This blog draws on my firsthand on-the-ground field research among refugees. My interviews with them tell their stories in their own words and offer insight to into a crucial but overlooked aspect of the refugee crisis: the psychological consequences of hidden trauma for them and its effect on the societies where they find refuge. This is a crisis we can’t ignore. A staggering number of people are being forced out of their homes worldwide. This unprecedented exodus and the resulting abuses suffered along the hazardous journeys to safety create unseen dangers for the refugee and host countries alike. With more knowledge and better understanding, we can make life better for them and safer for us.

The story of Iba above is the first story in this blog titled, Trauma and Mental Health of Refugees Blog; it follows her journey from Damascus, Syria to Germany. It is based on my original research with refugees. I hope you will read Iba’s journey and tune in to more refugee stories that will follow.

About The Author:

Dr. Shaifali Sandhya is the Director of CARE Family Consultation, a research and consultancy firm that provides psychological consultations for individuals, couples, and families. She conducts original research on psychological trauma in asylum seekers and refugees from war-torn countries and how it affects their resettlement in host countries. Her work has been published in international media such as the New York Times, New York Times International Edition, FOX, CBS, US News and World Report, and the National Public Radio.






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