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The Syrian civil war has caused one of the biggest refugee crises seen in recent years. As in any war there casualties and collateral damage, and in this case it was the people of Syria. Due to this war more than 5.6 million people escaped and left behind their homes, jobs, lands and other family members to escape from Syria in search for someplace safe. From that moment they were labeled as refugees which is defined by The United Nations Refugee agency (UNHCR) as people who have “fled war, violence, conflict or persecution” and have seek asylum to find safety in another country. Wars have always had an impact over people both physically and mentally, most of the survivors of wars suffer from any number of psychological or physical traumas like scars, injuries, stress disorders and numerous mental problems. As a consequence of these events Syrian refugees need to have different systems to try and overcome these traumas. Many of the Syrian refugees chose Egypt as their target due to its resemblance to their home country in language, religion, and culture. As a result we are asking How do Syrian refugees in Egypt cope with trauma related to homeland violence?
The Syrian refugee crisis has become a serious and rising problem that has captivated the attention of the entire world. More than 5.6 million humans have fled this gruesome and devastating civil war. The United Nations Refugee agency (UNHCR) is a global organization created to help and aid refugees all over the world by providing safe haven, shelter, healthcare and sometimes food. The UNHCR makes monthly reports on the refugee situation in Egypt and the most recent one showed that there is 247,142 refugees in Egypt (UNHCR, 2019) and among them there is 155 thousand who are of Syrian origin. But in reality the number of Syrian refugees is closer to half a million refugees and that’s because most of them are not registered in the UNHCR database. A big problem that faces these refugees that come from war zones is the traumatic events that they had to live and relive every day and whilst they use coping mechanisms which are defined as “constantly changing cognitive and behavioural efforts to manage specific external and/or internal demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of the person’ (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984, p141).
The refugees that had no other option then to flee with their lives after having suffered “multiple rights violations and abuses from different actors, including massacres, murder, execution without due process, torture, hostage-taking, enforced disappearance, rape and sexual violence, as well as recruiting and using children in hostile situations. Increased levels of poverty, loss of livelihood, soaring unemployment and limited access to food, water, sanitation, housing, health care and education, have all had a devastating impact on the population putting them at further risk of exploitation”.
Adding to this the high level of stress that is affiliated with war survivors and not only that refugees who are outside of Syria also have family and close members that are still inside the war zone which increases their stress levels and makes them always on edge waiting to hear any news good or bad from their loved one. In a survey made to test the standing effects of trauma on Syrian refugee identities, there were 196 participants who were defined as refugees and were all in Cairo 77% reported having at least one family member injured or killed during the war. This continues stress doesn’t give the refugees the chance to forget or to get through the war so they become attached to their lost country and become isolated in their suffering and become a fallen part of society that is stuck and getting worse with time. All these emotions may lead in the future to several disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), emotional disorders and several anxiety disorders. These psychological disorders lead to the annihilation of one self’s and their community which means that they no longer recognize themselves or their surroundings and they have higher tendency to be violent and suicidal. This is somewhat due to the overwhelming and continuous stress they face in moving from a country to another whilst thinking of “chronic unemployment and associated financial hardship, discrimination, rights violations, and continuous direct and indirect exposure to the conflict that threatened the existence of their nation”. In a survey made to test the standing effects of trauma on Syrian refugee identities, there were 196 participants who were defined as refugees and were all in Cairo and the mean age was 35.99. The results of the survey were not a surprise the rate of (PTSD) was (33.5%), depression was close to (30%), (13,7%) suicidal plans or attempts. A big portion of them were victims of jail and torture and (89.8%) of them stated that they witnessed gruesome and shocking scenes that changed their lives forever and that can be never forgotten.
Coping mechanisms is one of the main tools that refugees use to try and cope with the traumatic experiences that they previously faced. The Syrian refugees have already put one of these coping mechanisms to use, which using social support from people who have faced the same experiences as them. A study was conducted using 550 Syrian refugees who are located in Jordan 88% out of them reported seeking social support whether it is from “(the family, the community, or formal or informal bodies)”. The coping mechanisms that are being employed in the study are “problem solving, seeking social support, and avoidance”, the problem-solving scores showed that most participants (60.5%) had scores that were below the average. Scores for avoidance, showed that the majority of participants (63.1%) had scores at or above the average. Religious belief has always been a safe haven for people in need and the Syrians are no different. Religion has been known to be one of the main coping mechanisms used, and in a study where 112 Hindu Bhutanese refugees used religious coping to help them with the cultural and psychological change of leaving their country and going to a different one. Drugs and alcohol abuse are a popular coping mechanism because it helps reduce the stress, makes it user relaxed and forget the events that happened to him. In a recent study on Syrian refugees in Iraq found that more than 60% have more than 5 alcoholic drinks per week.
Now there are many small communities inside of Egypt that are composed of Syrians that represent a small community and as a safety net for the Syrians to feel right at home and an example of such a community is el-rehab city. Were Syrians have created a community that is growing and increasingly thriving, Syrians there have established small and growing business were they succeeded in the food industry and there is a certain connection between foods, countries and memories so Syrians are trying to cope both socially because they provide a service and economically because they provide jobs for people that are otherwise facing many problems that could endanger their health physically and psychologically, whilst still maintaining a certain level of attachment to their home countries. Syrian refugees are using marriages as a coping mechanism as it is seen as a way to insure protection and better future (Hassan et al., 2016, p133), but in truth early marriage can have negative effects like “distress for girls, and is often associated with interruption of education, health risks and increased risk of domestic violence. “Feelings of abandonment, loss of support from parents and lack of access to resources to meet the demands of being a young spouse and a mother may create additional stress.” To conclude, this research has shed light through multiple surveys and analyses on the immense and long hardship that Syrian refugees faced that left psychological and physical problems.
The survey and focus group were conducted as a mean to see if the Syrian refugees face any trauma and what mechanisms they used to cope with that trauma.
The writer has taken in mind ethical and moral standards as a consequence to the sensitive and personal subject of inquiry. All the participants of the online survey were informed that it was completely anonymous and also that they don’t have an obligation to answer a certain question against their will. The participants were also told that the results of the survey were only going to be used for this paper and not outside the university walls. The author also conducted a focus group that was also anonymous and both didn’t have any questions that asked for personal information without having a direct relation to the research.
The author used both representative and non-representative sample in the research. The non-representative sample was combined of some students from the class to see how they deal with stress and if they use any coping mechanisms. They were all from the same age group and same gender. The representative sample were Syrian refugees who are residing in Egypt. There were 54 participants from both genders and different age groups, ranging from 18 to 57 years old.
The focus group was conducted in the classroom and had 6 participants. They were all asked some questions on stress and how they deal with it. So the first question asked was how do they deal with stress and two of them answered that they deal with stress by trying to forget it and move on. The rest were divided, two participants said that they like to put all their energy into something else like work or any other activity that takes their attention of their stress. The rest two said that when they are stressed they talk to friends or family so they use social support to decrease their stress. The next question was if any of them consume any alcoholic or chemical substance when they feel stressed or scared, but all of them answered that they don’t drink at all. The last question was what coping mechanism do they think the Syrian refugees use, and they answered by saying they use work, family and social support to help them.
In this part, the results of the first primary research findings will be discussed. The Syrian refugees have faced a lot of trauma to get into Egypt, and their suffering didn’t stop as they still face traumas both physically and mentally that originated from their homeland. These refugees are victims of war, and what they have suffered will always stay with them. In the survey almost 90 percent of them said that they have already faced some sort of trauma whilst they were in Syria. Moreover out of these participants that answered yes, 40 percent said mentally, 16 percent said physically and almost 44 percent said that they suffered mental as well as physical trauma. Even after leaving Syria these refugees are still suffering some kind of trauma, as 55 percent answered that they still do suffer. Only 30 percent of them said that they don’t face any trauma after abandoning their homeland. These incidents create a multiple of mental and physical conditions for these refugees, as suffering from these traumas could lead to a multiple of illnesses like post-traumatic stress or panic attacks. These illnesses could have a major negative effect on the refugees because they create a barrier between the lives they had in Syria and their lives now, at the end these problems make them feel as they are always in constant state of fear and war.
These refugees have been through very bad situations that will always be in their memories like ‘ The two most important situations that happened to me, the first one that your friend dies in front of you, and you can’t do anything about it, and the second I traveled from Sudan to Egypt, and we were in the desert for a long time” we could take this person as an example of his suffering, were he faced death whilst he was crossing the desert and saw his friend get killed right in front of him, any one of these events could lead to long term trauma and mental issues. A big factor that worsens the condition of these refugees and creates a constant threat to their condition is that these refugees have family members that are still in Syria. One of the participants when asked what kind of trauma he was facing, he said “The fear of the family and the psychological state that we suffered because of it”.
In fact in the survey almost 100 percent of the participants had family or friends that still reside in Syria willingly or unwillingly.
One of the major causes of stress related problems for these refugees mostly are caused by the continuous worrisome on their family because it creates a constant attachment to their homeland. This constant stress turns later into an identity crisis, because neither can the Syrians fully get passed what they have experienced as they are always reminded of it by worrying on someone they care about. Nor can they get back to their home country so they mostly get stuck between fully emerging and going back. Not fully emerging into the hosting society has numerous downsides as the refugees will feel lonely, uncared for and depressed and that could finally cause deep emotional and physical pain. All these experiences, tend to stay with the person who has them and after time they start to grow and get even more complicated for example on of the participants said “Until now every time i see a security man or a personal in the army i involuntarily find myself running away from them”, so even after leaving Syria the mere sight of a man in uniform scares that person and that all goes back to what he suffered before and those traumas are known to be a consequence of people who were at a battlefield. Another example, is another participant who suffered from nightmares were she sees killings and the sounds of shell casings and bombs blowing up and she would wake up frantic and paranoid. All these different and multiple circumstances affects their victim, and when we asked the participants if they suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD and 22 out of the 53 respondents answered yes and 12 said maybe, which is a very high ratio for such a serious mental problem. In these cases this constant pressure could at the end drive the patient to inflict pain on himself. In another survey that had 196 Syrian refugees that reside here in egypt, found out that 33 percent of them suffer from PTSD and almost 14 percent had suicidal thoughts. To add “sadness, grief, fear, frustration, anxiety, anger and despair. Cognitive manifestations include loss of control, helplessness, worry, ruminations, boredom and hopelessness as well as physical symptoms such as fatigue, problems sleeping, loss of appetite and medically unexplained physical complaints. All these symptoms could just add up to be all the problems that the Syrian refugees have to deal with on a regular basis.
Moreover, these Syrian refugees have to deal with these traumas using coping mechanisms, after conducting the survey, we found that 41 percent use work, 31 percent on focusing on family or household, 10 percent chose avoidance and finally 18 percent said social support. The majority of participants chose work as their primary coping mechanism and that is because most of these refugees have families to take care of and that is the same as the people who chose focusing on family. These two coping mechanisms tend to shift stress into more productive things and they try to deal with pain by working hard at something else. Avoidance is not successful in dealing with trauma because it doesn’t discuss any emotions and doesn’t give a chance to process the events that happened so finally they always resurges and could even be worst with time. Social support consists of sharing and supporting the community by creating the feeling of safety and acceptance, when we asked if they think that social support is a good mechanism approximately 75 percent said yes, only 2 percent said no, and the rest said maybe. As an example a study who took 550 Syrian refugee found that almost 88 percent out of them reported seeking social support whether it is from “(the family, the community, or formal or informal bodies)”. Marriages is also used by families to insure a stable and happy life for their children, but this marriage could worsen the situation if the couple feels pushed or forced to be married. The majority of the participants felt that it was not a good solution and to add “Feelings of abandonment, loss of support from parents and lack of access to resources to meet the demands of being a young spouse and a mother may create additional stress.” so marriages are like a two edged sword.
Alcohol and drugs fall into the category of avoidance as they are used as an escape out of realism. It has been proved that people who have suffered from these traumatic events tend to consume more of these substances, for example In a recent study on Syrian refugees in Iraq found that more than 60% have more than 5 alcoholic drinks per week (Berns, 2014, p.24). But in the survey almost 100 percent of the participants answered that they don’t drink or take any sort of drugs.
The majority of the Syrian refugees that are aware of the horrible present have been in one a way or the other affected and traumatized by what’s happened to them and what they are living. These traumas have physically and mentally affected their livelihood, as these traumas have an aftershock that are presented in the image of multiple illnesses like PTSD, panic attacks, deja vus and many more. The refugees needed coping mechanisms so that they could keep on living a normal live or at least pretend to have one. Even if the refugees do try to help each other, the Egyptian government needs to help them get better as they have become an important part of the countries demographics. The government needs to facilitate their entrance and tend to their mental illness because they are humans and need to be treated as such.
The main limitations on that project were doing the survey, when it was written in English no one answered any of the questions. So when we decided to go and do the survey by hand and in Arabic also no one answered any of the questions as they felt it was too personal. At the end the survey was translated to Arabic then translated to English with the results.
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