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The urgency of addressing mental health for Syrian refugees

Horrific crimes against humanity are a daily reality in Syria. The international community must better ensure that skilled, appropriate mental health care reaches Syrians. One way is to increase contributions to the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture.

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Children as young as four have been imprisoned and tortured. One young child was kidnapped, thrown in a dark jail cell, and left for several days before freed. The child is numb – no longer speaking or playing.

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We are struck by the courage and resilience of Syrian refugees as they struggle with their daily lives. They, and all torture and war survivors, deserve better. And having provided care to nearly 24,000 survivors of torture and war since our inception, we at the Center for Victims of Torture know that mental health services can provide a ray of hope amidst the barbarities of conflict.

Therefore, last fall, the center made a Commitment to Action at the eighth Annual Meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative to provide mental health and physical therapy services to the traumatized Syrian refugee population in Jordan over the next three years. This commitment includes increasing treatment capacity at our existing clinic in Amman, and adding a mobile unit that travels daily to places in Jordan with large concentrations of Syrian refugees.

It is understandable that humanitarian aid during conflict is focused on basic needs: food, shelter, and medical care. For example, many Syrian refugees who fled to neighboring countries and the millions who are internally displaced live in sub-standard, make-shift housing. The UN and international agencies responding to the crisis remain severely under-funded.

But many will need skilled and appropriate mental health care to recover.

Some survivors may develop enduring mental health problems if they cannot access specialized mental health care. They will struggle with all the challenges any refugee must face but will do so while also feeling deep despair, anxiety, and psychological pain. For some, they will be unable to function and to provide for themselves or their children.

Wealthy nations must step up to the plate – and one way they can do so is by providing more robust contributions to the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture. Established in 1981, the fund awards grants that bring medical, psychological, legal aid, and financial support to torture survivors and their families. The United States has been a leader in this effort, but it could do more to encourage allies to make comparable contributions and prioritize mental health.

With more resources, the UN voluntary fund would be well-equipped to support torture survivor programs, including those in countries hosting large numbers of Syrian refugees, such as Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, and where resources have been exhausted.

Through our work and our Clinton Global Initiative commitment, we bear witness to the most horrific acts of humanity each day. But we also see the possibilities for resilience when people are empowered to rebuild their lives.

It’s urgent that the international community escalates its efforts to ensure that skilled, culturally appropriate care reaches displaced Syrians – care that addresses their internal suffering and recognizes their humanity.

Curt Goering is executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture, a Minnesota-based international nongovernmental organization dedicated to healing survivors of torture.


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