Mindful Mondays: Americans should pay attention to the human side of Syrian conflict

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

Starting on Sept. 9, the Syrian government and its Russian ally engaged in a deadly strike against rebel-controlled areas in northwest Syria. The attacks — just some of 1,060 in the span of 72 hours — killed at least five people, including a baby and a young child.

Syria has been in shambles since March 2011, when the divided nation joined the tide of social unrest that constituted the Arab Spring. These latest attacks confirm that, plagued by a raging civil war, the country will continue to suffer from one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War II. They also confirm that Syria’s population will continue to suffer from one of the worst mental health crises the world has ever seen. And the worst part? Nobody cares.

I could write a 10-page paper considering the different causes of Americans’ general apathy toward Syrian people: maybe it’s due to decreased media coverage, internalized racism or that the seven-year war is simply old news. Perhaps it’s all of the above. Regardless, the point is that people would rather hear about President Donald Trump’s latest controversial tweet than a chemical weapons attack on children in the Idlib Governorate.

So in case you haven’t been tuning in recently, here’s a snapshot of the crisis still unfolding: According to the 2018 World Report by Human Rights Watch, over 400,000 people have died in the war. Five million of those who survived sought refuge overseas, and six million have been driven from their homes in the country. Turning the focus toward mental health concerns, two out of three Syrian children have either “lost a loved one, had their house bombed or shelled or suffered war-related injuries,” according to The Washington Post. If that’s not enough, the report states that one out of four children are at risk of developing a mental health disorder.

The last statistic should stand out because, in addition to taking innocent lives and driving families from their homes, the crisis in Syria is producing an entire generation of children who will feel the invisible wounds of war for years to come. While the U.S. discusses Justin Bieber and Hailey Baldwin’s wedding, a six-year-old somewhere in Syria is losing his ability to speak after witnessing his friend’s murder; a 10-year-old is watching her mother die from a bombing strike; a 15-year-old is lured into joining a terrorist organization that promises him a new purpose in life.

This summer, I had the pleasure of working for a nonprofit organization that specializes in providing art therapy workshops and raising funds to combat growing mental health concerns among young Syrian refugees. Among our chief concerns was preventing negative coping mechanisms, or reactions to trauma that may result in aggressive or risky behavior. While it was fulfilling to know my work as an intern was at least indirectly supporting those desperately in need, it was also deeply sobering to consider just how many people’s lives were forever changed by a war they did not support in the first place. And given that there were about 100 psychiatrists for 22 million people in Syria before the crisis started, it’s safe to assume Art of Hope’s work is far from over.

To be clear, the objective of this column is not to shame those who haven’t been shouting for peace and providing direct humanitarian aid to Syrian children; rather, I want to inform readers that this war is much, much worse than they think — and it has become increasingly difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The onus is primarily on peacekeeping organizations such as the United Nations to make good on their promises and put an end to these senseless attacks, as well as the United States to accept — at the very least — more than a few refugees a month.

But as people with beating hearts and, hopefully, some shred of human decency, we should share at least some of the burden. In Syria, it would be an understatement to characterize the discussion of mental health as taboo. In addition to the barrier of access to psychiatrists and other similar professionals in the country, people with mental health issues are shamed and labeled majnun, which means “crazy” in Arabic. Therefore, as people with the platform to discuss these issues, we should become a voice for the refugees suffering from war, to stay informed about their mental health concerns and keep the conversation going — because these scars will last long after the war ends.

If there’s anything to keep in mind while we click through news programs and articles detailing the latest atrocities in the Middle East, it’s that Syrian refugees are, first and foremost, human. They are people who have lost the only homes they’ve ever known; they are people who have witnessed the senseless murders of their friends and family; they are people desperately escaping terrorism while being called terrorists themselves. They are people, undone by war.

Ryan Fawwaz is a sophomore majoring in journalism. His column, “Mindful Mondays,” runs every other Monday.