By Cai Cramer, Medill, Immigrant Connect
The United States admitted a total of 62 Syrian refugees from Oct, 2017 to Oct. 2018, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, a non-profit organization that favors low immigration numbers and produces research to further those views. Those handfuls of admissions came in the year President Trump issued a proclamation restricting entry into the United States for nationals of Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea,Somalia, Venezuela, Yemen and Syria for security reasons. By the end of 2018, the U.S. admitted more refugees from the small European country of Moldova than from Syria by a margin of 3 to 1. For one perspective, there are more Syrian refugees than actual Moldovan citizens in the world, according to a Reuters story on U.S. plans to sharply limit refugee flow to 30,000 in 2019.
Like most refugees, Syrians suffer cascading hardships and daily competitions for their time – finding jobs, learning a new language and adjusting to a foreign setting, missing their loved ones back home, squeezing time to spend with their families, and coping with mental health issues such as PTSD that they took with them from growing up in a war-torn country. A study by Arash Javanbakht published in Clinical Psychiatry News found that almost one-third of Syrian refugees in U.S. have developed PTSD criteria. That mirrors the rate of PTSD documented among Vietnam War combat veterans.
“I would say the number one mental health problem in the Syrian community is struggling with adjusting,” said Hadia Zarzour, a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor and vice president of the Syrian Community Network, an organization in Chicago, which connects and empowers families, and provides housing, social services, education, basic human needs and food security.
When people come, they’re often missing social connection, ” Zarzour said.
The lack of social connection can be exacerbated when the community is not replenished with other Syrians and when President Trump raises levels of suspicion and scrutiny of Syrian nationals. Syria has been deemed by Trump as one of 11 “high risk” countries, for which “enhanced vetting” methods are used. This means that more resources are required to vet Syrian refugees in the pipeline, that fewer are ultimately granted asylum and that the backlog of asylum seekers is further bottlenecked, according to a story in Vox.
Only one family of Syrian refugees has been admitted into the United States this year, according to Zarzour. And, though refugees who now find asylum in the US are grateful for the opportunity to create a new life for themselves, their family and friends stuck back in war-torn Syria or neighboring countries are never far from their thoughts. “There’s one (family), their son is still in Southern Turkey. They have three children here who are on disability, and they were hoping to have their oldest son come and be reunited with them here. But there hasn’t been a moment, you know, there hasn’t been any will on the US government’s part to accept their oldest son as a refugee or have them apply for a visa. It seems like all the doors are closed,” she said.
Zarzour has worked with countless refugees in private practice and with the help of the Syrian Community Network, She’s seen many refugee families who’ve come to the United States with hopes that their family and friends will make the journey in the near future. It is a recipe for anxiety and depression to have both social connections and hopes of family re-connections dashed by Trump’s tightening immigration policies.
Syrian Community Network works hard to connect immigrants to “host” families, said its founder and president Suzanne Akhras Sahloul. That’s one way to provide comfort and assistance to Syrian refugee families as they attempt to integrate into the Chicago community.
Sahloul described some of the actions that her organization takes to assist in family’s integration. “Knowing that people need help with adjustment, there are ways that people can help them which will affect their mental health. For resettlement agencies, it’s important for them to have culturally competent staff. We also train volunteers to mentor families, and according to their age groups and their interests, we connect them to families and they tutor these families in English, take them to the park, maybe do swimming lessons,’ Sahloul said. “This way, the Syrian families are being connected to the bigger American culture.”
Zarzour believes that the best thing to help alleviate the mental health ills her clients face would be to allow more family and friends to find asylum in the United States. “They feel isolated, lacking a sense of belonging, a severe sadness being away from their other family members,” she said. “Having more refugees here, creating more of a community, would help so much in improving their mental health.”