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Fariha Naqvi-Mohamed Headshot

Mental Health And Syrian Refugees: What Nobody Is Talking About

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Mental health matters. What happens to someone who belongs to a community that is already being stigmatized and they have mental health issues? Unfortunately in many cases it leads to further isolation, feelings of rejection and depression. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), one in five Canadians experience a mental health or addiction problem.

There is an influx of Syrian refugees arriving in Canada thanks to our amazing new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, 25,000 to be exact; the majority of whom are expected to arrive by the end of March 2016. We cannot imagine much of what these families have endured. Most if not all have lost family members: parents, siblings, children, friends. In some instances they have had to watch them being murdered or raped right in front of their eyes. Most of us cannot bear to hear of the atrocities these families (including children) have faced much less imagine experiencing them for ourselves.

My family has been in touch with some of the new families that have arrived in Montreal over the past few weeks. The experience has been humbling to say the least. They are so afraid, so timid, yet so thankful and appreciative of any good that comes their way. They have left everything behind. In most instances they do not know how to speak English or French, they do not know anyone and have to deal with brutally cold temperatures (contrary to the desert heat they are accustomed to). All these factors make them exponentially more susceptible to depression or further exasperates any existing mental health condition.


These families have to learn to gradually trust once again.

We recently introduced our children to one of the newly settled Syrian refugee families. They have young boys around the ages of our children. They met one another, and in the wondrous way that children do, they played together sharing games and all the while communicating using the universal language of friendship: a smile. They did not speak each other's language. They eventually tried teaching each other words and simple expressions by using hand gestures but none of that really mattered to any of them. All that mattered is they found a new friend to play with. Somehow as we grow older, things begin to change. We over complicate things. We see things through politically motivated lenses.

My daughter went to school and as her class was learning about the Syrian refugee crisis, she shared that she had recently met a family that had arrived in Montreal. Her classmates were intrigued. They asked if they spoke English or French; she told them neither. She told them that she communicated using gestures, and trying to use Google Translate on Mommy's cellphone. She also told her classmates that they have so little that it makes her sad. The boys only have one pair of pyjamas, one pair of school clothes and limited personal belongings. Her fifth grade class, encouraged by their teacher, immediately sprung into action brainstorming ways they could help out. My heart burst with pride and gratitude that my daughter is surrounded by such wonderful children that wanted to join together to help this family they had never met. They recently got the green light from the school principal to collect items to help the new refugees.

These families have to learn to gradually trust once again. It will take them time to feel safe in their surroundings, to trust others and with time, to enter into the folds of our society. The onus of responsibility falls on us. Those who live here, to reach out, to do what we can to help out. There are organizations working tirelessly; many of which are run by volunteers wanting to make a difference.

I absolutely love the #BellLetsTalk campaign. It helps raise awareness, create dialogue and raise money for mental health initiatives in Canada but the question that I want to ask is what happens after January 27th? What happens when everyone stops talking about mental health? What happens to those who will continue to suffer?

I worry for the families who arrive to this foreign country with a small bag of their belongings and the task of learning a new language, new culture and new life. Winters are brutal for so many of us. Imagine being stuck inside of a small apartment afraid to go outside because it's 30-40 degrees colder than anything you've ever experienced before? Imagine sitting inside because you do not speak the language of the locals? Many of the refugees that have arrived recently are very well educated hold multiple degrees and may have had highly lucrative careers back home. Home being the place that was bombed out of recognition, their belongings ransacked, families killed and life savings spent transporting their families to safety.

I worry for these families and their mental health. I worry for the mental health of their young children who have had to witness horrors no child should ever have to witness. They have had to travel on foot for thousands of miles and risk their lives for a chance at a future. The future is now. They have arrived in our backyard. Scratch that, they have arrived on our front porch. It is our duty as Canadians to welcome them as our ancestors were once welcome to the beautiful land we call home. It is time we show them what it means to be a Canadian and welcome them to Canada.

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