Refugees find help with mental health effects of Beirut blast – Lebanon

With her daughter left traumatized by the 4 August explosion, Syrian mother Fahima approached UNHCR, who arranged for professional help with her mental recovery.

By Warda Al-Jawahiry and Rihab Charida in Beirut, Lebanon | 11 October 2020

When the shockwave from Beirut’s port explosion ripped through her home in the nearby Jnah neighbourhood of the Lebanese capital, Fahima was thrown across the room by the force of the blast. In her mind, however, she was transported even further.

“I felt I was back in Syria and the bombing was there,” said the 35-year-old refugee originally from Aleppo. “I forgot I was in Lebanon and that the explosion happened here.”

For Fahima, who lost her middle son Mustafa before the family fled the conflict in Syria, that early August evening in Beirut brought back a flood of painful memories and emotions.

Initially the overwhelming one was panic, when she could not immediately find her youngest daughter Manar, aged four years, who had been playing outside with her brother when the blast struck.

“I felt the world had ended.”

“When I went outside, I saw the smoke and I saw the fallen glass and I couldn’t find my daughter,” Fahima explained. “I felt the world had ended. I felt something that can’t be described.”

The girl was found hiding behind a large plant pot in front of a neighbouring building and quickly reunited with her mother, but it soon became clear that the powerful blast had profoundly affected Manar’s mental wellbeing.

The previously fearless young girl with distinctive blue eyes and blonde curls now refuses to sleep unless the door to her bedroom is locked, is terrified by any loud noise and refuses to leave her mother’s side.

See also: Q&A: ‘Before the pandemic, refugee mental health was severely overlooked. Now it’s a full-blown crisis’
“She has changed. She has a fear that was not there before,” Fahima said. “She’s constantly putting her hands over her ears if she hears a sound, and she says there will be another explosion. But she wasn’t like that before. She used to be very brave.”

Worried for her daughter’s state of mind, Fahima approached UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, for help. She was referred to the agency’s local NGO partner Makhzoumi Foundation, who provide mental health services to Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese with funding from UNHCR, and was given an appointment to see a psychologist.

On World Mental Health Day (10 October), UNHCR reaffirms its commitment to addressing the mental health needs of refugees, displaced and stateless people under its care, as well as vulnerable members of host communities.

UNHCR strives to integrate mental health and psychosocial support in its work. This has become increasingly important during the COVID-19 pandemic, which threatens to trigger a mental health crisis due to increasing isolation, loss of livelihoods and uncertainty about the future.

Across the Middle East and North Africa region, UNHCR and its partners have stepped up psychosocial support activities in response to alarming reports of increasing mental health issues among forcibly displaced people. These include a three-fold rise in reports of suicide and self-harm to UNHCR’s Lebanon’s national call centre.

Since the explosion two months ago, psychologist Mirna Maawad said she has seen a number of children who lived close to the blast area coming into her clinic in with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“These children are showing signs of fear – they cry, scream, they remain very close to their parents’ side,” Maawad said. “They have nightmares at night, some wet their beds.”

During her sessions, Maawad uses storytelling to explain to the children that while traumatic events like the explosion can happen, it is something that is now in the past and teaches them ways to try to overcome their fears.

She said the level of distress can be particularly high among Syrian refugees who fled conflict at home and came to Lebanon to find safety. “They were [among] the most affected by this because the current event triggered memories of their previous experiences,” Maawad explained.

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