by Amina Foda
What began as a response to the mental health needs of Syrian refugees in Amman, Jordan has grown into a captivating platform for the world to hear the voices of Syrian refugees. The Syria: The Trojan Women project produced a theatrical adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women on the grounds of the everlasting themes and consequences of war that continue today in the Syrian crisis.
The play, performed by a group of Syrian refugee women, embodies the women’s journey with mental anxiety, depression and PTSD. It provides a sobering view into their lived experiences and raises awareness of their challenges. In the words of one of the Syrian refugee actresses, the sentiments of loss and the pain of displacement found in Euripides’ play, The Trojan Women, resonated with their experiences of the modern day Syrian crisis.
“War is eternal, just the weapons have changed” — UK based producer, Charlotte Eagar, introduced the Project to an auditorium of Columbia University students in New York City (an evening organized by the Columbia Global Mental Health Program and co-hosted by Columbia College). The New York audience was connected to a group of Syrian refugee women in Amman, Jordan who shared their experiences and hopes to a growing Western audience. Originally scheduled to travel to the United States to perform their adaptation of Euripides’ classic anti-war tragedy, visa denials prevented their physical presence in NYC. As a saving grace, technology bridged the political roadblocks to sharing their story.
The women were thoughtful and purposeful in their discussion with the audience. They shared their lived-experiences of building their new community of support in Amman and finding their voices through the anxiety and insecurity of the life of a refugee. There was a resounding sentiment of “revived ambitions” and empowerment – to not only express their opinions to their communities, but to the world at-large: “I want the world to hear our story,” one of the actresses stated as part of her motivation to participate in the group. They were clear in their message: the world needs to know how much they have suffered and yet how resilient and determined they are to maintain hope.
Beginning with drama therapy workshops the women created a “unified piece of work.” Syrian director, Omar Abusaada worked with the women to incorporate their stories into their performance of the classic play. Promoting protective factors such as community support was a critical therapeutic element to the participation and benefit of the project to the group of women. The group found support in each other and through the space created by the workshops to share their stories and build a new community. One activity asked the women to draw out the path they took from Syria to Jordan. At each stop along their path they added the names of the people who made it with them and what happened along the way. While sharing their stories, emotions of their journey came to the surface and were released and acknowledged by their fellow refugees.
The unique opportunity to interact with the Syrian Trojan Women allowed for an open dialogue and feedback from the women to the mental health care community. Dr. Helen Verdeli, a clinical psychologist at Teachers College of Columbia University, spoke during the NYC event. Dr. Verdeli asked the women for their recommendations to mental health care professionals who work with Arab refugees and the response was nothing short of human and directed.
First and foremost they emphasized the value of delivering the message of hope, to preserve and nurture hope throughout the healing process. Secondly, as a sign of success on behalf of drama therapy, they suggested the benefit of turning their pain and suffering into something productive. In other words, a productive form of release of how they’re feeling. Using performance arts, art and importantly, education as healing tools and avenues to share their stories. In the Middle East, where mental health care is strongly stigmatized and the barriers to seeking care are well ingrained into the society’s fabric, these recommendations can hold strong value in the future direction of mental health care in the Middle East.
Ultimately, after the play is performed and applause is given, the women remain with their struggles and fears about the future. Among many, three concerns are important for the global community to be aware of and acknowledge as the real-time barriers to life as a refugee.
Firstly, the opportunity to continue their education is a right they have been deprived as refugees. Many refugees are in the middle of school when disaster strikes and the transition to a host country is not a smooth one wherein education is uninterrupted. Moreover, the politics of the host country and international community is similarly crucial in the development of employment opportunities for refugee men and women. The inability to work and provide for their families as they had done in Syria has implications beyond the material deprivation. As mentioned by the group of women, the men in their community are suffering from additional psychological distress because of the lack of employment opportunities.
Lastly, and far from least, one woman asked Dr. Verdeli her opinion regarding the effects of her own mental health on the development of her children. Her concern was based in the reality that she is anxious and worried about her future and she is additionally worried if her own feelings will impact her children. Dr. Verdeli reminded her that it takes at least 6 months to a one year before symptoms of trauma may dissipate. Although a refugee psychologist was also a part of the project and worked with the women through their traumas and psychological distress at the time; if her symptoms persist after this time, then this may call for additional professional intervention.
However, in an environment where this sort of care may not be accessible, protective factors can serve as a hopeful light on her children’s development. She highlighted the importance of collective healing in the wake of collective trauma. The impact and value of closeness to their children and their children’s education is critical to their well-being. At a time when most may not seem like treasures, she encouraged the women to “find the treasures that are left” and share moments of joy and play with their children when possible.
With that, the woman’s young girl came up to the computer camera and waved to the crowd for a beautiful reminder of the resilience and determination of the refugee community to build and preserve their families and communities in the face of crisis.
Photos courtesy of http://www.syriatrojanwomen.org/