Refugees mental health: cultural complexities


A Lebanese refugee in South Lebanon. Source: Wikipedia

“We journey towards a home not of our flesh. It’s chestnut trees are not of our bones. Its rocks are not like goats in the mountain hymn. The pebbles’ eyes are not lilies. We journey towards a home that does not halo our heads with a special sun. Mythical women applaud us. A sea for us, a sea against us. When water and wheat are not at hand, eat our love and drink our tears… There are mourning scarves for poets. A row of marble statues will lift our voice. And an urn to keep the dust of time away from our souls. Roses for us and against us. You have your glory, we have ours. Of our home we see only the unseen: our mystery. Glory is ours: a throne carried on feet torn by roads that led to every home but our own! The soul must recognise itself in its very soul, or die here,” by poet/writer, Mahmoud Darwish.

Each year, approximately 14,000 refugees are accepted into Australia. According to Settlement Services International, from 2014 to 2015, Australia accepted exactly 13,750 refugees. This amount included 10,500 people who came as refugees, special humanitarian entrants and people granted onshore protection visas; 2,500 who applied for refugee protection after reaching Australia and 500 people as part of a community pilot program.

Refugee camps. Source: Alannah Kerr

There are many mental health issues that refugees and asylum seekers go through when being part of these refugee camps and centres. These mental health issues originate from the traumatic events and ongoing challenges to get to the camps. In the end, it’s due to the lifestyle of the camps and centres making their mental health issues even worse.

One of the most significant issues these people deal with is the cultural complexities found within the camps themselves. The resettlement for refuges is most of the time a stressful and indefinite period for them.

Documentary filmmaker, Audrey Courty, experienced the lives of many refugees and asylum seekers earlier this year. Courty and a friend decided to go to numerous refugee centres and camps in countries including France, Turkey, Greece, Berlin and Germany.

“We documented what we saw and people we talked to,” Courty said.

On their journey to these countries, Courty and her friend had just as much knowledge on refugee camps as most other Australians did.

“Beforehand, we didn’t really know what to expect going into these places. We had an idea from what we saw on the news, but it was nothing compared to what we did see. It was very emotional though and a lot to process,” she said.

“What was really overwhelming was you don’t know what to expect once you get there and you just have one day to kind of just process what you’re seeing and then the next day we’re just setting up interviews and getting footage. What was difficult in these camps was there were so much content and so much more going on than what we had anticipated.”

Courty went on to explain the range of different cultures at the refugee and asylum seeker camps that her and her friend had noticed.

“Just to give you an idea of the different cultures; the main places the refugees are coming from are obviously the Middle East, a lot of Garnees and Iraqees, a lot of sireins, Africans and sudinese,” Courty said.

“A whole bunch of different religions like Christians and Muslims and then lots of different backgrounds. What I mean by backgrounds are some of the refugees were very poor like the ones from Africa. But the refugees from the Middle East were more middle to upper class, and they’re the only ones that can afford a really expensive journey. So you have a lot of variety and education levels and backgrounds.”

Mental health of refugees and asylum seekers. Source: Wikipedia

Courty knew there would be many different cultures involved in these camps and centres with different things happening. Fortunately, she is originally from France, and whilst growing up her and her family had to move to many different countries due to her fathers job. Because of this, she already has a very high level of cultural awareness and understanding. With this backing,  she was able to build instant rapport with many of the refugees as she was able to speak other languages like Turkish.

Courty goes on to talk about a conversation she had with a not so poor refugee.

“There was one I spoke to who was a millionaire, literally a millionaire, and he really tried to make a point of that. He showed me a picture of his house back in Syria and his cars and was really trying to show me that he doesn’t usually live like he does in the refugee camp now. You get such a diversity of people and you can have different experiences.”

With so many reasons as to why refugees and asylum seekers experience mental health issues like anxiety, depression and PTSD, cultural complexity plays just one of the major roles that really impacts on these mental health of these people as it is incredibly overwhelming for them all.

Courty explains, “Because they’re from all these different backgrounds and some of them its their first time out of their country, they’ve never been anywhere else. It’s already such a distressing situation to be in for them.”

An SBS article further explained the mental health issues common in refugees and talks about the approaches that a majority of refugees have due to their non-western cultures.

Dr Aesen, from the article explains, “People from non-Western backgrounds may have a more holistic approach to their health. They may utilise traditional healing practices or seek out a traditional healer in addition to seeing a university trained doctor.”

Whilst speaking to refugees, Courty noticed other professional journalists in the camp and found it interesting how they acted around the refugees and asylum seekers.

“Even though my friend and I are journalists, there were really professional journalists there in the camp and what I found was really funny and also struck me was that some of the refugees would sit me down with them to just talk and have tea, yet the really professional journalists wouldn’t be doing that and they were just there with their camera crew and would just blow off any refugees that would ask them for an interview.”

For more information on cultural complexities in refugees and asylum seekers please contact the Brisbane Refugee and Asylum Seeker Support Network.




Alannah is an Australian journalist for The Source News covering a wide range of newsworthy stories. Everything from Sports, Politics, Entertainment, Finance, Fashion & Beauty, Celebrity and Local News.

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