World Mental Health Day: The Monster Who Stole My Daughter’s Smile

Award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker Ronahi Hasan writes a personal essay on the impact of being a refugee on her daughter’s mental health...

An unexpected journey

“We believed arriving in a safe haven was the end of our journey and the beginning of our children forging a brighter future. Little did we know that the lurking spectre of mental health would descend upon my beloved daughter, casting a shadow over her life.

In 2009, I fled Syria with my three children, embarking on a perilous journey to the United Kingdom from the heart of Kurdistan Rojava, the city of Qamishli, a city perched on the north-eastern fringes of Syria along the Turkey border.

We sought refuge in the UK due to the relentless persecution we faced in our homeland. 

For decades, the Kurdish population in Syria have endured a dire lack of fundamental human rights — civil, political, and cultural — under the successive regimes that governed the country. 

The oppression of the Syrian Kurds escalated, particularly after the deployment of government troops, armed with tanks and helicopters, leading to a brutal crackdown on Kurdish territories following the Kurdish uprising in 2004.

In 2011, what began as a peaceful uprising against the blood-soaked tyranny of President Bashar al-Assad and his regime swiftly escalated into a conflict that engulfed Syria. Deadly force was ruthlessly employed to suppress the peaceful demonstrations, plunging the nation into a quagmire of terrorism and strife, with multiple factions vying for control. 

Even as I write this, Turkish forces are conducting airstrikes targeting Kurdish communities and vital energy infrastructure, claiming innocent lives. For more than 12 long years, the Syrian people have endured the heart-wrenching turmoil of shifting power dynamics and ever-elusive safe havens for their families.

Arriving in the UK

I arrived in the UK with my children, armed with nothing but forged documents procured through the assistance of people smugglers.

My husband, a political activist wanted by the regime, faced a perilous journey of his own and eventually joined us a year later, also armed with falsified documents.

As parents, our aspirations for our children know no bounds. Our love for them is unwavering, and we yearn to provide them with the same quality of life they once enjoyed in Syria — a solid foundation upon which they can build their promising futures.

Both my husband and I held esteemed academic degrees in Syria. He engaged in trade and managed a transportation and export business, while I devoted myself to caring for our three young children, two boys and a girl. 

We toiled tirelessly to meet our children’s needs, ensuring they never felt inferior to their peers. Our journey towards integration in a new society was marked by tenacity and the unrelenting pursuit of becoming productive members of our adopted home.

When I first arrived in the UK, English was a foreign language to me, as Syrian education is conducted in Arabic. However, I embraced the challenge and embarked on a journey of self-improvement. 

I dedicated myself to volunteering with numerous organisations while diligently studying to master the language.

Eventually, I graduated from the University of South Wales, earning the institution’s Journalism Prize in recognition of my unwavering commitment to forging a new life. 

Alongside my studies, my husband and I successfully ran a Syrian-Afghani-Iranian restaurant in Cardiff, a testament to the resilience of a refugee couple, a story that graced the pages of local newspapers

A year after my graduation, in 2017, I proudly became a Wales Media Awards winner, contributing to global multimedia organisations such as the BBC, Channel 4, and various other media outlets, offering unique perspectives on Syria and the Middle East.

These achievements merely scratch the surface of our accomplishments in this country. Intertwined with the educational strides made by our children they are a testament to our unwavering dedication.

Unfamiliar terrain

However, over the past five years, our lives have undergone a gradual transformation. Change is often elusive at first, especially when it involves grappling with mental health issues — an unfamiliar terrain for us. 

We lacked any prior knowledge or experience in dealing with such matters.

Our cultural background and societal norms played a pivotal role in perpetuating the stigma surrounding mental health. In the Middle East, preserving one’s public image and adhering to social standards are paramount. 

Discussing mental illness remains a taboo, particularly when it concerns a young woman like my daughter. This stigma not only curtails prospects of marriage and employment but also hampers societal acceptance.

At the tender age of 18, my daughter was diagnosed with anxiety, and the signs were not immediately apparent. She was a vibrant, with a melodious voice, a charismatic young woman known as the “Kardashian” of her college for her striking resemblance to Kim Kardashian.

Attempting another new beginning

In search of a fresh start and greater opportunities to build friendships and connections, we decided to move from Cardiff to London. 

I do not have family or relatives in the UK, and back in Wales there were no friends from our Syrian community with children the same age as ours. Therefore, we planned to move to London as it has significant Kurdish, Syrian and other racial communities from the Middle East.

However, just a week after our arrival, the first COVID-19 lockdown descended upon us, making it exceptionally challenging to access the support my daughter needed.

She endured a misdiagnosis of psychosis and was subjected to the wrong treatment. Two years later, they re-diagnosed her condition as anxiety and depression. It had gradually worsened over time.

Subsequently, she was neglected for over a year, prompting me to lodge numerous complaints about the response within the NHS system, which took a toll on me both physically and mentally. Her condition deteriorated steadily.

Today, my daughter has undergone a profound transformation. She has lost her once radiant smile and lives in isolation, confined to her room, grappling with crippling fears, auditory hallucinations, and intrusive thoughts, at times even wrestling with suicidal ideation.

A glimmer of hope

Our family dynamic has shifted dramatically, necessitating the establishment of a new routine. Our well-being is inextricably tied to our daughter’s progress. We have had to relinquish everything that defined us and concentrate solely on ensuring her safety above all else.

Our foray into the labyrinth of my daughter’s mental illness is an imperative endeavour, not only to support her but also to dismantle the stereotypes and stigma encircling mental health issues in this generation. 

In Syria, psychology was not a subject held in high regard, leading individuals to keep their struggles hidden and their need for professional help unspoken.

We must learn from one another’s experiences, for in understanding each other, we come to know ourselves better. 

My daughter’s battle is arduous. It is deeply rooted in childhood exposure to violence in Syria at the tender age of six, coupled with forced separation from her homeland. The challenges of being a refugee and confronting societal racism have compounded her ordeal, resulting in this relentless and daunting condition.

I remain immensely proud of my daughter and the remarkable achievements she has accomplished on the challenging journey from a child refugee to British citizen. She completed her education journey from primary school to college without the support that is now available to refugees and newcomers in this country. Everything she accomplished was a result of her own determination and effort until she applied for university. Unfortunately, she faced a setback at that point, which has compelled her to postpone her pursuit of higher education.

The million-dollar question now lingers — will my daughter overcome this adversity? 

With love and care, our family envelops her. I firmly believe that such devoted care will not be in vain; there must be a glimmer of hope, even in the darkest of hours.”

About the author

Ronahi Hasan

Ronahi Hasan

Ronahi Hasan is an award-winning bilingual journalist and documentary Filmmaker who can work fluently in Arabic, Kurdish and English. Her specialisms include Syria, the Middle East, refugee crisis and religious extremism. She has contributed to global multimedia organisations, including the BBC, Channel 4 and other media outlets.

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