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The urgency of addressing mental health for Syrian refugees

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Millions of Syrian civilians – men, women and children – have been tortured, imprisoned, raped, and shot at while fleeing from the ever-escalating conflict. They’ve personally witnessed brutal treatment, including the massacre of entire families and the destruction of homes and neighborhoods. As the political and sectarian violence facing Syria becomes more pronounced, the need to address refugees’ psychological distress becomes more urgent.

In Jordan, home to about a third of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees, the Center for Victims of Torture has a team of therapists who provide mental health care and physical therapy to Iraqis and Syrians who fled the fighting in their countries. Although we haven’t publicized our services, we have a waiting list of of potential clients of more than 700, the vast majority coming from Syria.

Such a large response, especially without any public outreach, is unprecedented for us. After several past conflicts, including those in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, our organization worked closely with community leaders. We conducted public education activities to explain the effects of violence and how mental health care can help individuals and communities regain control and resume basic functions.

By contrast, the Syrians who seek us out are not waiting for public outreach campaigns. Up to 50 Syrian refugees a day come to us with requests for psychosocial and mental health care for themselves, their children, and other severely distressed family members. They are distraught – sobbing uncontrollably, sharing stories of unimaginable terror, showing our counseling staff pictures of killings that happened in front of their eyes.

Their stories are heart-breaking. Parents are desperately worried about their children, who are wetting the bed, covering their ears and crying when airplanes pass overhead, clinging to their parents, and unable to concentrate at school. The parents want to help their children, while struggling with their own horrific experiences and feelings of failure that they could not protect their little ones from harm.

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