Renowned Journalist and Refugee Rights Advocate Arwa Damon on the Importance of Refugee Mental Health


By: Ayushka Anjiv

The Azadi Project’s Priyali Sur interviewed Arwa Damon, CNN’s Senior International Correspondent and humanitarian to discuss the importance of mental health support to displaced populations and in particular refugee women and children. Arwa is also the founder of International Network of Aid, Relief and Assistance (INARA) which focuses on providing medical assistance to children from Syria, including Palestinians, who are the group in greatest need.

She tells us a heartwarming story which took place in a province in Syria, about a little girl,  wearing plastic slippers in freezing weather, who had been walking all night. The striking thing was that she wasn’t crying. “In many ways that the fact that they (the children) weren’t crying was just so telling about the psychological impact of what it is…” describing at length about the kind of trauma that shapes a child. Arwa spoke about the journeys of young women with the backdrop of conflict in their lives who have an additional societal pressure about their bodies. 

Global estimates from the World Health Organisation suggest that one in five of the adult population in conflict areas suffer from mental illness. At least one out of three asylum seekers and refugees experiences high rates of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). International Rescue Committee has reported that between March 2018 and July 2020, 45% of their clients receiving mental health support in the island of Lesbos, were women with the most common vulnerability being gender-based violence. Women in Lesbos have shared stories of rape and sexual assualt, depression, retraumatisation at the camp. 

Arwa shares the story of Yusuf that she covered in Baghdad. Yusuf was just 5 years old when masked men poured gasoline on his head and set him on fire, in front of his house, where he was playing. His reaction was anger and he was lashing out, however with proper psychosocial care Yusuf forgot the trauma and the incident did not affect his psyche. 

Covid-19 has worsened the mental health crisis in Moria. The existing infrastructure to provide mental health care support, isn’t enough. IRC has only five psychologists and therapists on the ground at Moria Camp. Moreover, only 3% of refugees are referred to mental health services after initial screening. According to UNHigh Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, there are reports of increasing mental health issues and needs among those displaced. Fear of infection, confinement and isolation measures, stigma, discrimination, loss of livelihoods and uncertainty about the future are all contributing factors to the increased 

When Yusuf’s family decided to put their story out there, the response was tremendous. “… my email exploded and the phone was ringing off the hook.” says Arwa. This story inspired her to start her own charity, INARA. Azadi’s Mental Health Care Support also aims to provide psychotherapy and counselling to women at Moria. 

Arwa’s proposed solution was ‘collective impact’. She says, “we’re not going to change the world alone…never dismiss the sort of collective impact of what a large number of small acts of kindness can actually do, you know, no donations are too small no gestures too insignificant”.