Iraq: Mental health support for Kurdish refugees fleeing Syria

Iraq - Newly arrived refugees from NE Syria

Iraq 2019 © MSF/Hassan Kamal Al-Deen

When Bardarash camp in Iraq opened on October 16 to host an influx of Kurdish refugees fleeing northeastern Syria, Jalal and Jamal joined the first Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) medical team sent to the site. The two men had been recruited by MSF in Iraq and were able to respond to the emergency within 48 hours. Their personal experience also helped prepare them for the work: both of them had arrived in the region five years earlier after fleeing violence against the Yazidi community in Sinjar district, in northern Iraq.


Photo story: Caring for Kurdish refugees in Iraq

MSF team members provide mental health care to Syrian Kurdish refugees in Bardarash camp, Iraq.
Iraq 2019 © Hassan Kamal Al-Deen/MSF

The latest wave of refugees from Syria followed the US troop withdrawal and Turkish military operations in the region. More than 13,000 people from Syria now live in Bardarash camp, originally built in 2013 to accommodate Iraqis fleeing fighting in Mosul.

Jalal and Jamal were responsible for conducting a mental health needs assessment among refugees in the camp while a counseling service is being set up. They began by providing initial psychological support to the camp residents.

“This involves traveling through the camp, going tent-to-tent to meet families and identify symptoms that may be related to psychological trauma,” Jamal said. “As former refugees, we know what they may be feeling in these moments, what we ourselves have gone through . . . The language that Syrian Kurds speak is close to that of our region [in Sinjar], which makes it easier for us to understand each other and create a close bond.”

Jamal and Jalal come from the town of Sinuni, home to the Yazidi community. They were uprooted when their region was occupied by the Islamic State group in 2014.

“We fled to the mountains,” said Jalal. “Then, with some of my relatives, we crossed the Syrian border before heading towards Dohuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan. From there, I was able to continue my distance learning at Mosul University while the city was under occupation.”

Jalal, who graduated second in his class at the end of his studies, had to juggle a busy schedule.

“From 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. I was in class. Then I would go to the refugee camps to teach English to children who could not attend school,” Jalal said. “I spent my weekends and holidays in the camps as a volunteer. I conducted first-aid training and continued my English lessons there.”

In 2018, while back in Sinjar to renew his identity card, Jalal heard about the opening of an MSF project on mental health and joined the medical team. Jalal and Jamal now work as a medical translator and a community health worker, respectively, and have been responding to the psychological trauma suffered by many people who lived in territory controlled by the Islamic State.

They are now responding to a fresh emergency. In the heat of Bardarash camp, located on a large, sunny plain, families forced to flee the conflict in northeastern Syria are living in tents set up on concrete slabs.

“We are here to tell them that they have a future here and elsewhere, that [organizations] like ours will help them on different levels, and that we are here to listen to them,” said Jamal. “We take the opportunity to show them some breathing and self-massage exercises to relieve moments of stress.”

At the end of each interview, families are given a small brochure that explains the symptoms of psychological distress so that people can better recognize it and seek medical help if needed.

“People have as many questions to ask us as we have for them, and that's normal,” said Jalal, smiling. “Even if we don't have all the answers, what's important to them is that they can share their stories, fears, and doubts. This helps us identify people who may need more support.”

A few days later, a new team comes to relieve Jamal and Jalal, so that they can return to Sinuni, in Sinjar, and resume their regular activities. They will come back if needed. Asked if the workload can get too heavy at times, Jalal has a ready response: “I don’t get tired of helping people.”