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Two weeks in an Afghan Refugee Camp: A Humbling Experience

By Nahid Fattahi

In October 2021, I published an article about the dire need of mental health care amongst Afghans both in the diaspora community and the newly arrived refugees. Shortly after that, I was invited to serve as a first aid mental health provider at one of the U.S. military bases which had established a camp for the Afghan refugees. I agreed to help for two reasons: First, I knew that there was a need, and I had the ability to help, and second, I had just published an article on this subject and therefore, I wanted to walk the talk. This was not my first time serving at a refugee camp; in 2016, I had volunteered in Lesbos, Greece to help with the refugee crisis at Moria Camp. The two experiences, however, were very different, because in Greece the refugees did not know how their journey would end, but the Afghan refugees here in the U.S. are anticipating a better future after they resettle.

Regardless of where one works with refugees, the experience is humbling and completely devastating.

I heard heartbreaking stories of the refugees’ experience at Kabul airport on August 16 and the days that followed. The images of Kabul airport that I and millions of people around the world watched through our TV screens was the reality of the many people I worked with and spoke to at the camp. They talked to me about how they managed to escape, and they cried over their loved ones left behind. I heard stories of family members separated at the airport gates and stories of how they managed to climb the wall of the airport to board the charter flight, not knowing where they were being taken to. I heard fear in their stories, I heard hopelessness in their stories, I also heard resilience in their stories. And I focused on the spark of resilience that I saw in each and every one of them.

Although I refrained from making any diagnoses because my only role there was to provide basic mental health care as first aid provider, I could not help but notice many psychosocial issues amongst the refugees, from young to old, men and women from different walks of life, education level and socioeconomic background — all struggled with resettlement stressors and anxiety regarding their future in the U.S., such as employment, education and housing. Moreover, many talked about symptoms of PTSD and depression. Studies have shown that PTSD symptoms are pervasive among refugees because of the repeated exposures of war and violence, death and disappearance of loved ones, and lastly, involuntary or voluntary relocation. Many of these Afghan refugees complained about these symptoms, indicating that they, too, might be suffering from PTSD.

The silver lining for these refugees was that they knew they were resettling in the U.S. and therefore would receive some help from the resettlement agencies. Within my role and the capacity of my work, I tried to provide them with a safe space to talk about their fears and hopes, and I reminded them of the resilience that had helped them to get to that point. But my time was short, and only so much could be done within the span of the two weeks that I was there. That said, it’s important for health care and mental health practitioners to understand the complex psychosocial stressors that come with warfare, displacement and forced relocation of refugees. It’s vital for health care workers to provide interventions within a culturally and linguistically appropriate context. It’s important for physicians who will work with these refugees to provide information on mental health services that are available in their areas. It’s also important for school counselors to make time for refugee children and provide a safe space for them to talk. It’s important for teachers to pay a little extra attention to the refugee children and refer them to school counselors. And finally, it’s important for us as a society to welcome the newly arrived refugees, to extend a helping hand, and to open our heart to them.

About the author:
Nahid Fattahi is an AMWA member who works as a psychotherapist, adjunct faculty of psychology, and human rights activist with an interest in storytelling, yoga, and meditation.

AMWA Editor

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