Traumatized refugees refusing mental health help

By: Morgan Brouillet

(Scaramagas Refugee Camp, Greece) —  Barbers Alcocknde has been a resident at the Scaramagas Refugee Camp in Athens, Greece for more than a year. The Saudi Arabia native ended up on the run with his Afghanistani wife after the Taliban attacked her. Her wounds were so severe she almost died, needing four surgeries to survive. They fled in the dark of night, and on a journey that took them on a flimsy boat from Turkey to Greece’s borders because it meant a chance of safety for them.

But Alcokonde doesn’t want to talk about his wife’s attack. He pours his time and thoughts into the business he has set up at Scaramagas camp, repairing computers and cellular devices.

“I’m working here for the computer, mobile for the people for the camp here.”

For Alcokonde, his hobby serves as a non-medical form of therapy.

His  desire not to open up about the horrors of the past is common among a large portion of the refugee population. Volunteers and workers in the camps are trying to enforce the importance of receiving mental health while they wait for relocation or asylum.

When refugees arrive in Greece, their journey is just beginning. Many interviews and government forms are needed to see if they are approved for relocation. They are required to tell their stories of tragedy from their war-torn countries so the system can determine if they fit into the ‘vulnerable’ status that moves them closer to relocation or asylum. But lawyers and therapist are finding that it is painful for them to have to open up about what they have already been through.

The interview process to seek asylum can take a long time, with some cases lasting months even years. This often leads to frustration for the refugees and their loved ones who have already been through tough circumstances

“In the interviews it’s difficult (for refugees) to tell staff that they have been through rape, trafficking and torture. That’s why there can be more than one interview, making their time in camps longer,” said Eleni Petraki, a spokesperson for the Greek Asylum Services.

Sometimes their stories don’t match up with their family members or friends, which makes it hard to investigate their case. Petraki said.

According to Petriki the refugees often only end up in the system if a staff member suspects trauma or distress during the interview, at that point public services refer the case to a doctor or psychologist if needed.


According to Manuela Vlahki- Cepeda, an Administrator at Doctors of the World, many camps and nonprofit clinics have a social worker, therapist or psychiatrist on staff. Unfortunately the staff is finding that refugees in need of help aren’t willing to see a trained specialist to cope through their traumas due to cultural or personal reasons.

“A psychiatrist only comes in twice a week and when he does, many people don’t see him because it is frowned upon and there is a stigma attached to mental health in some cultures,” says Vlahki-Cepeda.

Often, she finds a refugee simply does not feel comfortable seeking therapy in front of others. At that point they often whisper to a staff member to contact the therapist or go in secrecy while their family and friends are away.

Even when some are considering therapy the amount of time can scare patients away.

“It takes a while for a patient to gain trust with the therapist. The patient would have to come in every week to really assist the problem and people aren’t willing to do that.” Vlahki-Cepeda said.

Experts and staff are trying to make an effort to encourage therapy and to schedule weekly sessions.

Anna Michalacheli, Project Coordinator at Doctors of the Word, agrees that this is a problem that needs to be addressed, but understands the sensitivity of the matter and the time one has to commit.

“We want them to see how we can support them through our social workers and psychologists,” says Michalacheli.

But the goal is to inspire their patients to see the experts more than once.

“What we need is to follow up cases, not to see them only once and prescribe medication and leave them on their own, we need to follow up the cases,” Michalacheli said.

Therapy is often thought of as an intimate, personal experience, but due to accommodations in the camps, refugees are not interested in visiting the therapist.

“It is very difficult to do this (therapy) because the conditions in the camp are not healthy. There are no facilities, protection and confidentiality, no privacy,” says Michalacheli.

Many are finding their alternative to therapy is to try and put the past thoughts behind. Some residents have turned to sleeping pills and other prescription medications, as a means to forget about their lives in the camp according to Ali Deovlet, a volunteer in the women’s center at Moria Refugee Camp.

Deovlet reports an instance where a resident was pressing her for sleep medication and for a better bed.

It is a sign to the aid worker that depression is prevalent throughout the camp. With nothing to do, a no assurances about their future many of them sleep really late into the day, she said.

With these situations volunteers are trying to motivate the residents to seek help. Volunteers and staff are hopeful that refugees of trauma get the help they need to later fulfill a new life in a new country.



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