12:00pm

Tue April 3, 2012
Health, Science, Environment

The scars inside: An Iraqi refugee opens up about PTSD

Over the past decade, California has resettled more Middle Eastern refugees than any other state in the country. In Northern California, Santa Clara County in the South Bay is a resettlement hub for Middle Eastern refugees – more than 1,300 moved there since 2006. About one out of three of those refugees are from Iraq. And most have seen or suffered through violence related to the war.

“What happened will remain like a scar inside yourself,” says one refugee, Jasmine, who asked to go by her first name only. “We saw a lot of stuff not normal, like dead people in the street. People killed in front of your eye. I don’t believe like I’m going to forget them.”

Jasmine is from Iraq. After two years in the U.S., she’s been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and she’s receiving therapy for it. But Iraqi culture, like many others, often considers mental health problems shameful, and Jasmine is concerned about embarrassing her family.

Jasmine is now a 24-year-old engineering student. She says she misses her home and her culture, but as a refugee displaced by war, she can’t go back. She says she’s enjoying the safety she and her family have found in their new home in California, but finding happiness has proven to be more difficult. Before she fled Iraq, Jasmine was studying computer science at Baghdad University. She left after insurgents killed her father.

Soon after her father’s death, some classmates warned her that strange men were looking for her. Frightened of being kidnapped and held for ransom, she fled and never returned to the campus. “Because at that time, when my father like killed, my other friend her father got kidnapped,” Jasmine says. “I’m something common in Iraq, unfortunately.”

Within four months of her father’s murder, Jasmine’s family escaped to Syria. Two years later, they were granted asylum and moved to San Jose. She says her family was in survival mode in Iraq and experienced a delayed reaction to the stress of war. “And after a while, like, you notice your huge loss – like the country and the house and the father. I have, like, grave issues because when my father got killed I couldn’t say goodbye to him.”

Once she landed in America, depression hit Jasmine hard. “You start being so far from your dreams back home. Like right now I feel like not only am I start at zero, but before zero, because people don’t trust my education.”

Jasmine’s social worker recommended she see a therapist and referred her to the Center for Survivors of Torture. Doctor James Livingston is a psychologist at the center. He says just the experience of having to flee your home country is usually enough to cause post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. “The re-experiencing symptoms are very painful and disruptive because they’re typically accompanied by the kinds of feelings that were experienced in the original situation,” says Livingston.

Jasmine remembers one of those flashbacks. She was at a women’s studies class at her college in San Jose. They were watching a documentary about a war in Chile. After the film, the teacher asked students to try to imagine how their lives would be if they lived in war. Jasmine didn’t have to imagine. “I left the class and I remained outside like for over like 20 hours just crying in a wail,” she says.

For the next two days her mind was flooded with bad memories. She says even seemingly unrelated things like songs would trigger her symptoms. Jasmine says she also has the extra burden of constantly worrying about her friends and family back in Baghdad.

Dr. Livingston says this burden has real effects. It can be hard for people with PTSD to focus their attention long enough to be able to do new things, or move forward with their lives. “We get people who were professionals in their home countries who are very intelligent and very educated and find themselves unable to learn because they’re traumatized,” he says.

Jasmine says she can’t forget her past, but she is learning how deal with it. Still, she knows that the healing process will be slow.

This story originally aired on November 28, 2011.

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