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Syrian refugee challenges therapy stigma

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By Yara Abi Nader

BEKAAVALLEY, Lebanon (Reuters) – Hana al-Ali broke a stigma when she opened up to a therapist about the strains she faced as a Syrian refugee in Lebanon. Now, she is encouraging other refugees to talk through their problems.

Pregnant with her second child, Ali escaped the Syrian city of Raqqa some six years ago to neighbouring Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley where she currently lives with her husband, two boys and one daughter in a refugee camp.

“When I first came here, I was very weak, I couldn’t understand what happened. It was like a dream, every once in a while I would ask myself ‘Oh God, I didn’t wake up from this dream yet?’” said Ali, 30.

“But it was not a period of weakness, it wasn’t weakness, it was a lack of understanding, I was going through a crisis and suddenly came here, so I felt life became suffocating,” she said, surrounded by her children as she spoke.

Help came some two years ago when she met a psychologist with the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC). “There was someone there who understood what I needed, I felt better little by little. I felt that the injustice we lived has become a source of strength – it did not break me.”

Lebanon is hosting nearly one million registered Syrian refugees who fled the conflict that began in 2011 – equivalent to a quarter of Lebanon’s population. More than half of them live in extreme poverty, and three quarters live below the poverty line, U.N. agencies said in January.

Sarah Joe Chamate, the ICRC psychologist who helped Ali, said talking about mental health was often seen as a taboo.

“The stigma is a big problem and it still exists in our society, as well as Western society,” she said.

“People don’t like to confess that they are weak … as if being weak is not a human characteristic, or as if we are strong and can handle everything.”

One year after beginning her therapy, Ali felt much stronger and began reaching out to women and children in her community to encourage them talk through the problems they face.

“For a lot of women, after I started talking to them, their lives with their husbands improved… I feel as if I repaired the planet Earth,” said Ali, who worked as a nurse in Syria.

Though she is not a trained psychologist, Ali’s empathy and patience have encouraged other refugees to talk to her, Chamate said.

“She is a good listener, you don’t need to be a psychologist to be able to help people, it is something innate,” she said, describing her as “a big inspiration”.

    Ali has joined English language and fashion design courses to meet more people who may be in need of a sympathetic ear: “When women come to me, they will speak, especially because sometimes, one would feel more comfortable with a stranger.”

(Additional reporting by Imad Creidi; Editing by Tom Perry and Patrick Johnston)

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