Vital work of restoring mental wellbeing to those in need

Having escaped war zones, undertook a treacherous journey across thousands of miles and finally risked death in a leaky dinghy, how can a refugee leave their awful experiences behind and get on with life? Surprisingly, the answer begins with swimming lessons and art classes, according to Tommy Flavin
Vital work of restoring mental wellbeing to those in need

You’d be forgiven for thinking that survivors of the journey across the Aegean Sea would prefer to forget their many brushes with death. But the first thing you see upon entering Pikpa refugee camp is a string of life jackets hanging from a fence. The words ‘Safe Passage’ are daubed across them in fading letters.

Most people’s instinct would be to shield the refugees from anything that might remind them of their trauma. Not so the volunteers of Pikpa. Here, they take active steps to help refugees face their traumas head-on in an effort to overcome them.

Across Europe, hundreds of thousands of refugees are living with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental disorders related to their wartime experiences and their terrifying journey to Europe. In the midst of the many crises-within-the-crisis, this is a long-term problem that is being overlooked.

The most visible manifestation of this approach is in the garish-yet-stylish bright orange shoulder bags that can be seen around the shoulders of volunteers and residents alike.

Look closely and you’ll realise these bags are made from life jackets. These come from the craft workshops run in the camp, where residents come face to face with their trauma; cutting, stitching, and reconstituting the symbol of their pain into a harmless piece of art.

In one of the many ‘domos’ dotted around the camp, two men are hard at work finishing pieces for an upcoming exhibition and sale of their work in nearby Mytilene.

Peter*, who fled government persecution in Eritrea, talks me through the process. Taking a lifejacket from the pile behind him, he begins to break it down. Stripping the fluorescent covering exposes a grey, hard, foam-like lining.

This lining reveals a dark secret: Many of the jackets sold by fraudsters in Turkey are counterfeits. Far from being flotation devices, the foam lining in the jackets often weighs the wearer down in the water, sinking them.

Peter takes this foam, cuts it into small pieces and dissolves it in a basin of solvent. The result is a sticky papier maché-like substance. He applies this to an empty Coke bottle and, before long, he has sculpted an ornamental cat. He places it on a shelf to dry next to a host of other objects — bangles, pots, decorative stars and more cats.

Behind the row of cutesy wooden cabins that once held holiday-makers but now host families fleeing Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and beyond, is the beach. Screams of laughter drift up from the seafront, where a crowd of children are jumping, splashing and play fighting in the sea.

The swimming lessons are administered by the Emergency Response Centre International — a Greek charity that operates from Lesvos, patrolling the coast and providing search and rescue operations for incoming boats of refugees.

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It’s a hard task — team members on the water pull the living and the dead from the sea. Those on the shoreline watch the water day and night, trying to discern the shadow of a boat or the faint glimmer of a lamp from the vastness of the waves. For these volunteers, teaching the children to swim can be as beneficial to themselves as it is to the kids.

“We don’t have any contact with the refugees once they leave the shoreline after their dinghy has landed,” Leonie Ioannidou tells me.

“It’s nice for the volunteers to have further contact with the minors and to spend time with them in a nice environment where everybody is enjoying themselves.

“We didn’t realise it at first,” one of the camp’s volunteers tells me. “But we never thought we’d need so many lifeguards until we saw how crazy they go in the water.”

She laughs nervously at the scenes of manic, unconstrained joy. It’s hard to believe these children came crying and shivering out of this same sea just a few months ago.

And it’s this same sea, with the mountainous Turkish coastline a mere 20km away, where many lost family members. In this context, it becomes clear apparent frivolities like swimming lessons and art groups have an important part to play. Research suggests that avoiding ‘triggers’ can impede an individual’s recovery from PTSD. And so, it is imperative to face up to a fear as soon as reasonably possible.

Research shows that incidences of serious mental health problems amongst refugees are at an incredibly high level. And it’s no wonder.

A report from the International Medical Corps into mental health issues amongst Syrians list a litany of stressors — beginning with their experiences of war at home, followed by the stress of their journey to Europe, the constant worry of being deported back to Syria, financial pressures, and tensions between host countries and the refugee populations.

And this is all before they make the dangerous journey from Turkey to Europe; residents of the camp described to me how close they came to death in these dinghies. And even then, there is no opportunity to breathe a sigh of relief when one arrives on European soil; many of the camp’s residents told me their time in Moria and Kara Tepe refugee camps on Lesvos was worse than any other stage of their journey.

What all this adds up to is a body of severely traumatised soon-to-be European citizens numbering in the millions. Left untreated, this issue will affect Europe long after the current refugee crisis has abated.

Long-term studies have found these mental issues typically persist for many years after an individual’s resettlement. These issues affect not only the individual, but family members too and thus society in the wider sense, impeding a family’s ability to integrate into society and to achieve a good standard of living (low-socio economic status amongst resettled refugees is another stressor with regard to mental health).

Small a gesture as it is, swimming lessons and art classes are a good start. Splashing about in the sea or making cat statues from Coke bottles is an important first step that can feel like a momentous leap to an individual.

*Name changed

READ MORE: Irish Examiner to publish Irish filmmakers' first hand accounts of visit to Lesbos refugee camps

READ MORE: Moria refugee camp: Where refuge becomes torment

Tommy Flavin is a documentary film director, and co-founder of The Reelists, a commercial video company specialising in producing documentary-style content for a wide variety of clients.

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