Refugee Status and the Human Brain

Author’s Note: Article originally published in BrainWorld Magazine.

Like blood from a wound, refugees pour out of the war-torn nation of Syria. And while international conversation centers on the social and economic toll refugees may have on their adopting countries, very little has been said about how immigration and refugee status may affect the human brain.

Syria was a beautiful country before the conflict broke out. I was there for three months in 2007. Only 17 years old, I was surprised by how “Western” it felt in some ways, while still incensed about the darker part of its history and heritage.

Being Syrian-American, I saw the dust of the streets, the spray-painted address on the side of my grandmother’s home, and the horse-drawn cart filled with peaches and tomatoes as another world. It was a dream, punctuated by the pressing bodies and vibrancy of the bazaar, the muezzin’s prayer call at 5 every morning, and the laughter as people ate, drank, and gossiped at a local cafe. I was proud of its beauty, and still am.

It was the perfect melding of East and West, and I longed to return. But when war hit in 2011, Syria shattered — and so did my hope of visiting again.

As more Syrian refugees flood European and Middle Eastern countries, the more medical-care systems of those nations become strained. Caregivers tend to focus more on somatic ailments — cuts, aches, and heart disease — rather than mental illnesses that can be brought out by the stressors of being a refugee.

Laila, a Syrian refugee, was tortured by authorities before she could leave Syria. Even while escaping, she witnessed the sight of bombed-out buildings, blood, and corpses. Only 16, with her younger siblings in tow, she saw more violence than most people ever do, even if they are avid moviegoers.

To read more of this article, check out BrainWorld Magazine’s online archive.

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