The Syrian Psychologist Using First-Hand Experience To Help Refugees

By Erica Crompton
02 September 2020
Syria, Omar Said Youssef, Civil War, PTSD, Refugees
The trauma suffered by those fleeing conflict does not begin and end with war. Omar Said Youssef is using a holistic approach to help those most in need

It’s been widely documented that people fleeing the Syrian conflict are vulnerable to trauma-related mental illnesses such as PTSD. One man addressing this is Omar Said Yousef, a Syrian counselling psychologist from the port city of Lattakia who, along with colleagues, founded Hope Revival Organization which specializes in mental health, psychosocial support and protection.

According to Yousef, now based in Turkey, psychological suffering can never be isolated from the surroundings of the human. It happens through a political, social, and economical context.

“Syrian suffering is not an aftermath of a natural disaster occurring and finishing,” says Youssef.

“Rather, it has happened due to suffering, which resulted from continuing horrifying events for nine and a half years; it has threatened and violated their freedom and dignity until now.”

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Over the last decade Yousef and Hope Revival Organization have been active in providing mental health help for Syrian refugees. Gradually, their work has shifted from helping individuals to training and supervising other organisations and non-specialised mental health professionals, in order to help their effect grow exponentially. In July 2016, Yousef initiated a ‘Science Week’ for global mental health experts to visit him and Hope Revival Organization in Turkey and share experiences.

Yousef, himself a refugee and someone who has experienced his fair share of trauma and suffering first-hand, is held in high regard by his peers. Colleagues have described him as having “a well of persistence and hope.”

“Frankly,” says Yousef, “Even when I left Syria, I was thinking about how to help myself and help others so that we can continue dealing with difficult circumstances and multiple losses. And not forgetting how we will provide goodness, love, forgiveness and tolerance for ourselves and people.

Because when I got my degree in psychological counselling, I didn't think that I would work outside of my specialty. This is what happened when I became a refugee. What I had been planning in my mind, and I applied it to refugees in Jordan and Turkey, as well as with the displaced in northwestern Syria.”

One peer in particular, Professor Stephen Lawrie, a psychiatrist at the Royal Society of Edinburgh whose clients include refugees, adds: “If refugees weren’t stressed or traumatised before they left, which often they are, they are likely to have been subjected to stress and trauma en route, and then they arrive in an alien culture, often with language or communication difficulties compounded by their experiences. Even if they are treated relatively well where they seek asylum, they tend to end up in temporary shelters of one sort or another, with others in difficulty, and face all sorts of bureaucratic hurdles to get aid, healthcare, and asylum.”

As an example, Yousef offers the story of a mother and family who he has helped.

A social worker at the school the woman's son went to identified the family’s need for help after the child had become aggressive. It transpired that the family were suffering from severe poverty, both before and after seeking asylum. The house they lived in was inadequate. The mother suffered from symptoms of trauma and depression, the result not just of the trauma of asylum seeking, but domestic violence before the war, too.

This is where Yousef and organisations like Hope Revival can help, through humanitarian, advocacy and a non-profit blend of therapy dedicated to overcoming difficulty coping.

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“If a person experiences difficult life events, his ability to withstand and positively cope is linked to his social support network, as well as to his psychological resilience,” says Youssef.

By creating safer environments for families like hers, through improving their quality of life, mitigating violence, opposing marginalization, or striving to eliminate poverty, he can attack the root cause of the problem.

Yousef’s approach also allows the people who use his services to find their own strengths, be it social or cultural, giving them the resources to recover on their own.

In situations as delicate as these, details matter, especially linguistic ones— imagine having to relay something as personal as your suffering to a doctor, through a translator—  which is why Yousef works to ensure translators get specialist training not only on symptoms and clinical terms, but on empathy and compassion, as well as how and where to sit so that translation is not as practical as a machine.

Details like this aren’t stumbled upon by chance. They are the result of first-hand experience, and it’s what makes the work at Hope Revival organization so important.

“Most Syrians live in continuous loss, and an incomplete mourning,” says Youssef. “So, I will continue to develop my capabilities so that we can meet the renewed and varied needs of refugees. I start and will continue from a motivating perspective given from the proverb which says ‘Hope is the last thing to die in life.’”

For more information on the Hope Revival Organisation or to donate for the continuing work with Syrian refugees, visit hope-revival.ngo.

Erica Crompton and Professor Stephen Lawrie are co-authors of  The Beginner’s Guide to Sanity, a self-help book for people with psychosis out now on Hammersmith Health Books.