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The Invisible Wounds Of Trauma And Loss

How my personal struggles with trauma enabled me to fully grasp the catastrophic impact of PTSD, trauma, and mental health challenges among some of the world’s most vulnerable refugees.

Tara Kangarlou meeting Syrian refugees in the borders of Lebanon-Syria.

Instead of an airstrike or an RPG blast, it was a telephone call that carried out the attack. A cracking voice, all the way from across the Atlantic, hit the bullet by telling me that my father is dead.

I was at an insurance office in Los Angeles preparing my father’s paperwork so he could continue with his chemotherapy in the States—I dropped the phone and began to sob. Five seconds later, I received another call. It was the same cracking voice that said, “he is not dead yet, they are hearing his heartbeat.” The phone-call dropped once again. It was then that a third call fired the last strike. “Tara, are you there? He is dead,” the call dropped again; I never picked up after.

Ever since then—in hopes of dodging yet another tragic call—I stopped picking up on “unknown” numbers or ones I don’t recognize. I start shaking from within and immediately call my mother just to see if she’s okay.

I never received much therapy after losing my dad at age 24; and after nearly seven years I still can’t confront my loss, let alone handle another. I’ve been dreading to write about my own battle with trauma, but more than ever believe it to be a “third rail” phenomena necessary for an open and public discussion in the United States and around the world. 

As a journalist, I spent much time with Syrian and Iraqi refugees in the Middle East. I met a mother from Manbij, who overnight had to crawl over dead bodies with her children on her back to escape ISIS; a teenage boy whose hand was cut off by ISIS and was forced to watch beheadings in Raqqa; three sisters who fled Mosul as they witnessed their school burn down by the same group.

“Children are psychologically crushed and tired. When we do activities like singing with them, they don’t respond at all. They don’t laugh like they would normally. They draw images of children being butchered in the war, or tanks, or the siege and the lack of food.” These are the words of a Syrian teacher in the besieged town of Madaya who spoke with Save The Children in March 2017.

March 15 marks the 7th year anniversary of the catastrophic Syrian civil war with no end in sight. My intention is far from comparing my personal loss to that of the refugees, as it’s not remotely comparable. What they’ve endured is the height of an unjust human suffering and mine is a natural tragedy that all people face at some point by the mere fact of being human.

The common thread though is the birth of an emotional vulnerability that if not resolved will not subside on its own and will impair all aspects of life in its entirety. Ultimately it can augment into a deeper wound that in longterm will negatively affect not just the individual but the society at large.

If I encountered it, ignored it, and am still struggling to cope with it—then how can a child who lost a limb or a mother who lost a child, or a teenage boy whose father was murdered by ISIS, or a father whose family was burnt down into flames, cope with their trauma and loss? They can’t—at least not alone and most certainly not without sufficient psycho-social support.

I once met a Syrian mother with cancer lying in her death bed near the Syrian Lebanese borders in Arsal. Along with her three sons—ages 18 to 30—she lived in a dark tent thats bare floor was covered with patches of plastic and newspapers. Her oldest son told me that UNHCR does not cover any of her treatment nor pain killers. At that moment, their battle with poverty, cancer, and journey from Homs was no longer a report to be filed; it was a harsh reality that could haunt any single one of us—with the exception that those privileged by passport may have a choice to survive.

My pain was no longer about the woman’s suffering but the difficulty to grapple with the shame, guilt, and helplessness I saw in the eyes of each son. I had a flashback to the day I lost my own father to cancer. How would I’ve survived if instead of Los Angeles I was living in a tent with zero resources, utter humiliation, and no hope?

Two years have passed since I met this Syrian family. The mother has died. What remains though is the emotional wounds that her sons endured not only by her sickness, but by the utmost weakness they braved at an age where most men are at their prime. These scars will only worsen in the absence of any opportunity to work, to marry, to belong, to dream, to hope—and to simply feel like a man.

One can argue that rudimentary needs such as access to basic healthcare, education, and job opportunities are more necessary than psychological and trauma-relief services. My argument does not negate that; rather, suggests that supporting a war-torn population should be a holistic effort where psycho-social support is incorporated within the services provided to these emotionally-wounded people.

As the Syrian crisis enters its 8 year and Iraq struggles to rebuild the charnel house left by ISIS, supporting refugees should move beyond quick fixes, temporary tents, unfulfilled pledges, and unsustainable solutions derived by political favouritism.

Assisting refugees must stem from the recognition of the many layers of their challenges, and then a commitment to resolve all those facets rather than simply suffice to only manage their complex impediments.

After losing my father, my emotional wounds hindered me from doing basic activities; and I know for a fact that no temporary tents, accelerated education programming, or sanitary packages can help heal the invisible wounds of “traumatized’ individuals who have endured atrocities beyond imaginations—beyond the pain I once thought is the end of the world.

Trauma, psychological vulnerabilities, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are invisible scars that torment millions of refugees worldwide. But because calculating the damage or measuring the numbers of those afflicted are not as tangible as tallying up the number of out of school children or newborn babies, large aid organizations have not had much success addressing these psychological needs over the years. These are inconspicuous gashes that will only deepen unless recognized and healed in a systematic and sustainable way; and if not treated, these wounds will only grow into a terminal “disease” that in long term will negatively impact the victim’s life, their families, and the society at large.

While these may not be wounds visible to the naked eye, they are a plague that if not cured will affect generations to come.

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