At a time when there are 59 million displaced people around the world with an additional 8 million designated as stateless, it is normal to see growing awareness of their tragedy and increased public interest to alleviate their distress. From nongovernmental organizations and civic initiatives from small neighborhood groups to universities and media, almost everyone is dealing with this humanitarian problem on some level.
I attended the 1st International Islamic Initiatives on Peace Building 2017 (IIIPEACE 2017) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, last week. Hosted by the International Islamic University Malaysia from Sept. 18 to Sept. 21, it was an intergovernmental academic and civil society partnership dedicated to the psychological well-being and mental health of women and children in conflict zones.
Accompanying a delegation of civil society members from Turkey as the representative of the Women and Democracy Association (KADEM), I had the opportunity to meet experts and activists from all around the world coming straight from conflict zones.
The joint statement released at the conclusion of the symposium called for special protection accorded to women and children in conflict zones, hopefully at least Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) members will adhere to.
Regions may be different and conflicts varied, but when it comes to forced migration and internal displacement, all are exactly the same.
When the spark of conflict is ignited, civilians either flee to safety or are forced out of their homes. This suddenly creates a population in desperate need of food, clothes, shelter, medical aid and other necessities. States, international organizations and civil society groups try to address these needs to the best of their ability.
Turkey, for example, was faced with a sudden influx of millions of hungry and frightened people with the beginning of the civil war in Syria. Initially, the focus had to be on refugee camps, food and medical aid. Since then, however, the flood of refugees has slowed to a trickle. More than six years have passed and most of those who could flee have fled to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Turkey has the largest population of Syrians outside their country, at 3 million.
Host countries need to offer more than just the bare minimum to traumatized refugees. Besides covering their basic needs, refugees' psycho-social requirements also need to be addressed for them to at least have a fighting chance to build new futures. Unfortunately, the number of nongovernmental organizations focusing on the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is too few and awareness, even among the economically most advanced countries, is very low.
First of all, irrespective of gender, everyone who fled a conflict zone is suffering from PTSD. Anxiety, frustration, fear and social isolation are common among refugees. As years of forced displacement continue, children, even if they were born away from home and have no memory of the conflict, are forced to grow up among traumatized adults. Another factor that amplifies stress is the necessity to adapt to a new country and learn a new language.
Language becomes an almost insurmountable barrier to social acceptance for people who have been forced to flee their homes and countries, losing literally everything along the way. If left untreated, mental, cognitive, emotional, physical disorders and trauma augment each other to destroy a person.
This is true particularly for women, who are seen suffering from perpetual sadness, constant crying, pessimism, loss of self-esteem, extreme fear, nervousness and insecurity, which leads to a loss of interest in basic daily activities. This in turn is the cause behind the increased frequency of suicides among female refugees.
And all of this is before one has to confront the very real chance that these women still carry the physical and social scars of what they went through, especially if they have lost some of their closest relatives.
Camps, which usually lack even the most basic social necessities, need to be temporary shelters that help refugees acclimatize to their new environment. Unfortunately, as violence feeds on itself and perpetuates conflict, temporary shelters become permanent homes for many. As medical facilities built to accommodate the temporary medical needs of refugees are overwhelmed, sadness descends on all and seeps into the souls of those who are forced to stay where they are. These refugee communities, an amalgamation of people from different places and cultures, are forced to stay in the same place and are swept one way or another by the reckless decisions of the governments of their host countries. This is exactly what happened in the Calais camp in France where families were divided after camp authorities placing men and women in different areas.
Women emerging from conflict zones are often the sole providers and heads of their families. They are responsible for the care and protection of children and the elderly, which cannot help but increase their stress levels. One must also note that not all women who flee violence are welcomed in peace and solidarity. After fleeing from violence, abuse and torture, some face a new wave of torment in places where they sought shelter. Finally reaching a safe place may take going through much agony.
Nongovernmental organization research and reports based on field observations and direct experiences are a great help for those who are trying to truly help refugees. The traumas mentioned above are usually common among refugees, as the written declaration of IIIPEACE 2017 makes clear. There is no clear standard among OIC countries when it comes to providing for refugees. Taking measures to help refugees adapt to their new countries and overcome their deep psychological scars is crucial both to salvage these people and turn them into active and productive members of society and also allow them to lead and enjoy normal lives.