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Symposium addresses Syrian refugee crisis

Keynote speaker Hussam Jefee-Bahloul, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, examined the effects of armed conflict on mental health in Syrian refugees. Photo: Dylan Buyskes

By OLIVIA W. BAE

Published April 1, 2016

“The Syrian refugee crisis is one of the biggest humanitarian crises of this time.”
Filomena Critelli, associate professor
School of Social Work

In recent months, the Syrian refugee crisis – a result of the Syrian civil war which began in 2011 – has dominated the media and public discourse, calling into question the responsibilities of various nations to take in families and individuals during this time.

Of the 13.5 million Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance, nearly 5 million are refugees in outside countries while 6.6 million have been internally displaced.

On Thursday (April 1), UB’s School of Social Work brought together experts from the health, education and social work fields for a public symposium in response to the situation.

“Syrian Refugees: Buffalo Responds,” which was sponsored by the school and co-sponsored by the UB Asian Studies program, was held downtown at the Buffalo and Erie County Central Library and explored the impact of the crisis on communities and individuals, as well as Buffalo’s role in finding long-term solutions for resettled refugees.

According to symposium chair and associate professor of social work Filomena Critelli, the event was a chance to educate the public on what is really happening globally and locally as a result of the war.

“The Syrian refugee crisis is one of the biggest humanitarian crises of this time,” she said. “There is a lot of miseducation and rhetoric about the refugees, and a loss of sight that they are people in humanitarian need. They’re humans who have faced a terrible tragedy. And they are not aggressors – they’re victims. So we felt this [symposium] was something that we needed to do.”

Following School of Social Work Dean Nancy Smyth’s opening remarks, speakers from UB’s Department of Anthropology and School of Dental Medicine, as well as international organization Save the Children, presented on topics that ranged from European perspectives of the crisis, volunteer work in Syria and emergency responses for families displaced by conflict.

Midway through the event, keynote speaker Hussam Jefee-Bahloul, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, took to the podium to examine the effects of armed conflict on mental health in Syrian refugees.

He noted that the majority of mental health manifestations in Syrian refugees are related to either exacerbations of pre-existing mental disorders, or prompted by conflict-related violence and displacement.

“A lot of people focus on the second point and assume that refugees are traumatized and will experience post-traumatic stress disorder when that is not always the case. Those with pre-existing mental issues are usually the people who have trouble adjusting after,” he said.

He also mentioned that the psychosocial environment after resettlement affects a person’s ability to adjust and assimilate. Many challenges arise, especially for those displaced in more Western countries, such as language barriers, lack of resources and different approaches in thinking about gender and culture. Consequently, the chances of developing mental health issues will be higher.

The goal, he continued, is to think long-term in addressing these issues. Having well-trained and competent mental health interpreters, assisting refugees in navigating their resources and building relationships within both refugee and non-refugee communities would be a step in helping people overcome those barriers.

Participants ask questions during the Syrian refugee symposium. Photo: Dylan Buyskes

The event concluded with a panel discussion on Buffalo’s involvement in the refugee community and the services offered for refugees after resettlement to ensure that basic human needs are met.

Kim Griswold, associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, dove into the health needs of refugees, particularly women and children, and how accessible health care can drastically improve their conditions. Certain health risks, she said, are likely to occur in refugees prior to departure, in transit and upon arrival at refugee camps or a resettlement city.

According to Griswold, “75 percent of refugees, particularly Syrian refugees, are women and children. These are the kinds of things that physicians and providers of care have to be aware of. What about women who are pregnant, who haven’t had prenatal care, who may be breastfeeding and are nutritionally inadequate? There are children born in conditions that are not sterile. So women’s health and the health of mothers and children are of paramount importance.”

Throughout her discussion, she shared a collection of photos taken by photojournalist Magnus Wennman that showed Syrian children asleep during their journey. Each photograph was accompanied by a story that illustrated the horrific environments that Syrians had to endure to survive.

Griswold closed by describing the anticipated needs of Buffalo’s refugee population, such as children’s health and educational needs, women’s health with culturally appropriate care, and trauma-informed and culturally relevant care.

She pointed out Buffalo’s long experience in resettlement, presence of local Syrian leaders and professionals and increasing mental health expertise as strengths that can work toward healthy refugee resettlement. In addition, involvement at the community level has grown exponentially, with the emergence of community organizations and medical workers devoted to providing mental health and primary care for refugees.

Other panelists from the International Institute of Buffalo, Journey’s End, Western New York Center for Survivors of Torture and the Iraqi American Society discussed legal issues surrounding refugee resettlement, coping mechanisms for victims of trauma, educational needs for both refugee children and parents, and building a cultural community for resettled refugees.

“Part of the solution is understanding how global and local issues really connect,” said Critelli. “The pulse of our community is affected by it, so we wanted people to see how we work on a local level to find local solutions. And a lot of what we don’t see is what the refugees have been through before they come to us. So it’s important to know that bigger picture.”