Yousef is a young Palestinian journalist who left Gaza in December 2015 because it was no longer safe for him to stay. He had to leave his wife behind, hoping they would reunite once he is granted asylum in Europe.
The journey was tough and traumatising for Yousef. It took 7 dangerous attempts before he managed to leave Turkey for Greece by boat arriving on the Island of Lesbos. The sixth time, the boat sunk with many persons on board. Yousef was the only swimmer and managed to save the lives of children on the boat trying to reach Europe. It is not difficult to imagine how traumatising this experience must have been. For Yousef, for the children, for everyone on that boat. Trying to leave for Europe is a mix of excitement, adrenaline and fear. “Each time, you never know what will happen to you, if you will even survive the journey. I knew the risk I was taking, but I was ready” explains Yousef.
Yousef finally reached Lesbos in March 2016. After staying for 2 months on the island and then in Athens, he flew to Paris and finally arrived in Belgium in May 2016. He was initially planning to go to Ireland, but in the meantime, he received refugee status in Belgium. Yousef will stay in Belgium where he hopes to start a new life with his wife who will hopefully join him soon. Being far from your family, your wife, putting your life in danger and your projects on hold is terribly tough, explains Yousef.
In the refugee camp where he stays, Yousef shares a 5-square meter room with another person. “In the camp, you feel isolated but at the same time you are never alone, I am used to putting in my earplugs and listening to music, trying to relax in overcrowded rooms” says Yousef.
What is crucial for Yousef is staying strong and looking after his wellbeing by staying connected to real life and maintaining a social life: being able to learn French, being able to rest (which you cannot do in some places like Lesbos). The feeling of getting your life back is important and part of that is being able to be alone when you need to. It is not always easy to be surrounded by people from different cultures in distressing situations.
Yousef hopes to be able to start university studies again in Belgium, find a job as a journalist and build a “normal life” with his wife. The perspective of being able to hope for a new start, a new life and new projects is sometimes the most encouraging form of psychosocial support. “It is not easy. The situation is bad. You need to wait for months for a decision about yourself, your family.It is hard not to know what will happen. But despite everything, I keep smiling and know I can endure”.
For many refugees, Europe represents a safe place. It provides a possibility to build a new life with new opportunities. From day one, Yousef decided to make something of his situation: he knew he would need to find a job, access university and improve his language skills. Yousef has already done multiple volunteering placements, including one at Mental Health Europe, as well as freelance jobs as a journalist and correspondent. He is now waiting for his wife, in the meantime using his phone as their primary means of communications.
Throughout his journey, he has witnessed difficult situations and seen people who were deeply traumatised by war and its reality. He says that you cannot forget these experiences. No one does. You cannot erase the journey from your memory: it takes time to process what you have been through, and that is where support is the most welcome.
Hearing Yousef’s story in his own words resonates strongly and helped us at Mental Health Europe to understand what kind of support refugees need. Interestingly but unsurprisingly, hope comes out as a prominent theme which is also one of the keys to recovery from mental ill-health. What most refugees want is the hope they will get their life back, eventually. Not the same life. It will never be the same. But the hope that Europe will give them a chance.
Besides the perilous journey to Europe, the reception conditions in refugees’ centres can also negatively impact upon the mental health of refugees, which is a critical part of their overall well-being. The trauma and distress experienced in response to these challenges is normal, and the best way to address these is to facilitate access to appropriate social and mental health support. Sometimes a listening ear and a safe space might suffice. For most refugees, such as Yousef, social interventions (such as community initiatives, support groups, access to education and healthcare housing opportunities) will be sufficient, but some may need more extensive mental healthcare or support.
We need to humanise the discussions about the situation of refugees in Europe. Yousef, like many others in his position, has endured physical and emotional trauma. Offering social services to refugees and asylum seekers is the best opportunity we may give to advance their integration and ensure their wellbeing.
Mental Health Europe (MHE) is the largest European organisation committed to the promotion of positive mental health, the prevention of mental distress, the improvement of care, advocacy for social inclusion and the protection of the rights of (ex)users of mental health services and persons with psychosocial disabilities. MHE works extensively on the issue of migration and mental health and developed concrete recommendations on how Europe can invest in psychosocial support for migrants and refugees HERE.
* Thanks to Yousef H. for sharing his story with me