With tears streaking his face, Numan*, 28, recounts his last 15 years in Syria. At the age of two, he was abandoned in the street by his biological parents. A family then adopted him. His adoptive father was intensely authoritarian and grew increasingly fundamentalist over the years. Numan spoke of the mistreatment, “He used to lock the door and leave me alone in a dark room. He electrocuted me once.” With trembling hands, he adds, “My adoptive father is a sadist. He used to ask my teachers to beat me.”
With such an oppressive atmosphere at home, Numan suffered from anxiety and rebelled against authority. At school, he refused to stand up and sing the national anthem like other children. He said, “I refused control at home, at school and by the state.” His teachers often beat him harshly, and he experienced widespread rejection, including by his peers at school. He was also not accepted for being gay. At the age of 15, he was severely injured by dozens of his classmates. A doctor walking by on the street rescued him and sent him to be treated at a hospital in Damascus for several months. He then settled there and began to seek employment. “I first worked in a bakery, then in restaurants and hotels. Every time they discovered I was gay, I was fired immediately.”
In 2011, together with his friends, Numan organized a pro-gay rally on Valentine’s Day in Souk Al Hamidiyeh, the largest market at the center of the old city in Damascus. The government responded harshly to the peaceful gathering, and many of Numan’s friends were arrested. On March 15, 2011, Numan went back to his hometown in the southwest part of Syria to join the first peaceful demonstration against the Assad regime. Security forces ruthlessly crushed the pro-freedom protest, and Numan had to flee the country as security forces were looking for him.
He took a bus to Beirut and became a United Nations-registered refugee in Lebanon. “I was in a terrible psychological condition when I arrived. So much so that when the United Nations officer saw me, she immediately sent a psychiatrist from International Medical Corps to my place.”
International Medical Corps psychosocial worker, Elsy Mina states from her office at the Mar Antonio Clinic in Beirut: “Numan suffers from a deep anxiety disorder. During the first six months, we visited him every day for one to two hours. He could not be left alone. He had physical pain all over his body and was constantly afraid of people.”
“International Medical Corps’ intervention was two-fold: setting a long-term plan that will help prevent his anxiety from coming back and giving him medicine to cure his anxiety in the moment,” Elsy says. “Numan is still taking medication to continue his healing process,” she adds.
The young man recognizes that International Medical Corps’ support saved him. “I no longer have pains. I have realized that my mind influences my physical health. I am not scared of people anymore. I can say that I am almost fully recovered. I just want to find a place where freedom and gays’ rights prevail.” For the moment, Numan does not wish to live in a country where homophobia is rampant. He spends his days drawing, writing poetry, and designing music videos. At the end of his session with Elsy, Numan offers her a drawing he made especially for International Medical Corps to thank the organization for their support. “I feel powerful now, I still take medicine but I have energy and can start thinking about my future.”
Fifty-seven-year-old Suzanne* left Aleppo six months ago. Before the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Suzanne was a renowned researcher, working in agricultural studies for an international organization. “I wrote 70 research papers during my 30 years at this organization. My life was filled with social and cultural activities. But everything has turned upside down since the events in 2011: from a woman with a promising career and a rich social life, I have become a severely depressed woman and a refugee in Beirut with nothing left behind,” she said in a tone filled with pain and sadness.
Suzanne witnessed terrible scenes of chaos and violence in Aleppo. “I was leaving church once and saw two explosions in front of me. I have seen faces of people broken in the street; they fled from Seif Dawla [another neighborhood in Aleppo that was heavily bombarded] and became homeless beggars in our streets.” Witnessing war day after day caused her to develop an emotional disorder. For months, she could not speak a single word and lost her appetite. “I just wanted to sleep all day and night. I wanted to escape from the appalling reality around me,” she explains.
Suzanne had to quit her job because of her inability to perform her duties effectively. However, the resignation exacerbated her trauma. “I felt like I was losing everything. I was a rising social star in my country. I lost this title. I lost my job, my property and now my health. I lost 40 pounds in 2 years and refused to talk to anyone. Then I tried to kill myself three times by swallowing pesticides.”
Suzanne’s husband, a former civil servant, could not see his wife’s health deteriorate without taking action. He brought her to several doctors and psychiatrists in Aleppo but they were unable to solve her case. The couple decided to leave Syria because of the ongoing civil war and the daily atrocities that would only cause Suzanne’s health to worsen. They arrived in Beirut in August 2014.
“We hit the road to a psychiatric hospital, Hôpital de la Croix” in Beirut. I stayed there under treatment for 3 weeks. I was then sent to International Medical Corps for follow up. Were it not for International Medical Corps’ care and support, I think I would have died,” she notes.
Elsy Mina, the International Medical Corps psychosocial worker states: “We are helping people traumatized by the war like Suzanne and people with long standing issues as well like Numan. When I first met Suzanne, she had lost her voice from the trauma. We started to put her on medication with high doses and with time we lowered the doses to check her progress,” Esly adds.
Suzanne concludes: “Today, I am different. I love life, and I feel I can work again. I am looking for a job. I have experience as a qualified researcher. I feel ashamed to be financially dependent on my two children.” Suzanne is still being treated by Elsy at the Mar Antonio Clinic. They meet twice a month for follow up. “I wish to go back to Aleppo,” Suzanne tells Elsy.
Elsy does not recommend returning to Aleppo as the situation remains insecure there. “I don’t want you to be exposed to atrocities again. You are definitely better, but the situation there has not changed and your health is still fragile,” Elsy replies.
Mar Antonio Clinic
Mar Antonio clinic, a pre-fabricated building, has been run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherds since 2005. In 2008, International Medical Corps financed the extension of the building aimed at integrating mental health services to ensure that patients have access to much-needed support services. With funding from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, International Medical Corps equips the clinic with medicines and medical supplies and covers operating expenses, including staff members’ salaries. The clinic provides primary health care service to the large marginalized population of the Jdedeh and Rouessat areas on the Eastern side of Beirut. Thirty percent of the patients are Lebanese citizens and approximately 70 percent are Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
Dr. Hadi Jalkh, the Medical Director of the clinic, says that the number of Iraqi refugee patients treated at the clinic has more than doubled since the summer of 2014, when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) began seizing control of parts of northern and central Iraq. Mar Antonio clinic offers several specialties. There are two pediatricians, and two family doctors, as well as a gynecologist, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a nutritionist, an ophthalmologist, a cardiologist, a surgeon, and an urologist, and a dentist. Dr Hadi Jalkh praised the support of International Medical Corps.
Dr. Jalkh says, “I would like to note the quality of International Medical Corps’ work which also includes training in health information system (aimed at sharing patients’ information with the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health) and support in the quality improvement of the clinic. International Medical Corps is helping us in our application for international quality management and environment with a Canadian organization. We hope to obtain the certification.”
* Names have been changed to protect the identity of those featured in this post