A Syrian refugee tells his story with the 'Boats of Death' to Al-Ghad

This article was written by Nadine Al-Nimri.

Nadine was nominated by the Embassy of the Netherlands to attend the Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Crisis Areas conference, held in Amsterdam from 7 to 8 October, 2019 as part of a Press Visitors Programme organised around the event. While at the event, Nadine sat down with Abdul Karim Al-Brem, a Syrian refugee, to talk about his journey with mental health after fleeing Syria. This story was originally published in Arabic in Al-Ghad Newspaper.

Nadine Al-Nimri (fifth on the left) poses with The Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation of the Netherlands, Sigrid Kaag

Amsterdam – “Some believe that arriving to Europe after fleeing the war zone is in itself enough to get rid of the consequences of suffering. I was accused of complaining a lot. Nobody understood the nature of the successive shocks I suffered from.”

24-year-old Abdul Karim Al-Brem opens up about his experience upon seeking asylum in Germany.

Al-Brem is one of thousands of young Syrians who escaped war by crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe in the hope of finding a more stable and secure life.

Abdul Karim meets Minister Kaag at the MHPSS conference in Amsterdam.

“During my freshman year in college, the flames of war raged in Aleppo where I lived,” said Al-Brem. He told Al-Ghad the story of his asylum in Germany on the margins of a conference held in Amsterdam last week on mental health and psychosocial support in crisis areas. "My family’s house was bombed twice. I was seriously injured and so was my brother. I suffered grave injuries, yet the psychological effects, such as the anxiety, insomnia and depression were the worst," he added.

These circumstances led Al-Brem , to go  to Turkey and from there take a boat to reach the shores of Greece. “I was not like I imagined, the situation was as difficult as the war itself. I remember I met three children separated from their families seeking to reach Europe to be reunited with them. I decided to take care of them until their parents were found.”

Al-Brem said, “When we reached the area where they smuggle people to Europe, there were two boats. The first was packed with young people, whereas the second was full of families. I chose to be on the second in order to stay with the three children. The other boat sailed first, but it sank moments later.”

“Terrified, the families wanted to return to the shore, but the smuggler took out a gun and started firing. Threatened and prevented from going back, we crossed the sea feeling as if we were going to die in its depths,” he said.

“We arrived on the shores of a Greek island and asked about the youth who were on the other boat. We waited for about five hours, but we heard nothing about them. Then, we continued our journey. Later, we heard about the death of a refugee who had drowned at sea, but we did not know about the fate of the rest,” he added.

"The experience of the “death boats” was shocking and painful. However, when arriving in Germany, I was able to bring the three children to their parents. That gave me great comfort," he said.

Upon his arrival in Germany, Al-Brem said, “I lived in one of the refugee camps. There I suffered from mental fatigue, anxiety, stress, sleeplessness and depression. Some people thought I was grumbling. Assuring me that I was safe, they wanted me to stop worrying and to feel relieved.”

At the time, he was not aware that he was suffering from trauma. He did not think that the physical symptoms he was experiencing like stomach aches, headaches, and lack of sleep were in anyway connected to his mental health. He said, “I had zero knowledge about psychological health at that time.”

He added, “After that, my condition continued to deteriorate until I met a German volunteer who advised me to see a psychologist. That was an unpleasant experience, especially since the treatment was carried out with the help of an interpreter. I felt that the interpreter was unable to convey my feelings. I also felt that some questions were inappropriate. I stopped attending the treatment sessions, and my condition worsened as a result. After a while though, I participated in physical exercise sessions to reduce my stress levels.”

Al-Brem stressed that, "Exercising in group settings and physical health was the path to mental health. At that time, my learning of German contributed further to enhancing communication between me and the psychologist."

Upon recovery from a diagnosis of “recurrent trauma,” Al-Brem joined a vocational training program to provide psychosocial support to refugees from conflict and disaster areas. “I wanted to help anyone who suffered from what I suffered. Currently, I am a member of the National [Youth] Advisory Board of Refugees for Addiction and Trauma Issues, and we are serving in 8 cities in Germany,” he said.

The Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation of the Netherlands, Sigrid Kaag, stressed the importance of devoting attention to survivors of crises, whether wars or natural disasters, and providing greater psychosocial support for recovery from trauma and for better mental health.

In her opening speech, Kaag referred to  studies that show that about one-fifth of people living in crisis areas suffer from mental health disorders and that 40% of children in conflict areas have severe emotional disturbances.

“Through coordination among humanitarian agencies, United Nations organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), and officials from around the world, the conference aims to make mental health a priority in disaster and crisis relief programs,” she added.

The President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Maurer, emphasized the significant negative impact of crises on mental health, noting that the incidence of mental disorders is about three times greater in disaster and crisis areas.

"It is important to make psychological interventions essential and basic services," he added, pointing to what is known as the phenomenon of the transmission of trauma or disorder from one generation to another in the absence of the necessary interventions.

Maurer also pointed to the importance of developing psychological and special intervention programs for children, saying that psychological interventions are a long-term investment to protect current and future generations.

On the impact of psychological trauma on children, the Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Omar Abdi, said that "trauma has a significant impact on children and adolescents. It affects their memory and ability to learn, develop, and integrate."

According to Abdi, “There are 350 million children around the world who are considered the weakest and most vulnerable. The more difficult the circumstances surrounding them, the more miserable they will be.”

"Despite all this, the good thing is that these traumas are preventable and treatable and that we must all work to make this a priority."

Watch Abdul Karim attending the MHPSS conference in Amsterdam on 7 and 8 October.

Abdul Karim Albrem at the MHPSS conference, English version