"Some days I just have to listen"

A family therapist works with Syrian refugees

Donatella Lorch
"Bazı günler sadece dinliyorum"
26 April 2017

Zeynep, a family therapist, works with Syrian refugees - mostly women and children - at a support center in Izmir run by ASAM in partnership with UNICEF.

IZMIR,  26 April 2017 -  As a family therapist, Zeynep Kapısız regularly deals with anger, depression, fear and many pleas for help. Some days she feels overwhelmed. The problems she is trying to solve seem repetitively intractable.  

“I’ve learned that some days I just have to listen,” Zeynep said. “I can’t pay a family’s rent or find money for food. So we focus on learning how to take deep breaths and we just talk.”

Zeynep works with Syrian refugees, mostly women and their children living in Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city. Petite and lithe like a long-distance runner, she lets her thick black hair cascade down her back. At 27, it is already streaked with coarser white strands, perhaps a vestige of the problems that enter her office every day.

The Syrian refugee crisis, now in its seventh year, remains the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Turkey hosts the largest numbers with over 2.8 million registered Syrian refugees. Of these, 1.2 million are children. In Izmir, there are just over 102,000 registered Syrian refugees. 
A war’s most painful scars are often the hidden ones. It is the Syrian children that bear the heaviest burden.Traumatized by war’s violence and suffering, they are more likely to develop psychological disorders, become victims of violence, be forced into child marriages and recruited into armed groups.
Savaşların en acı verici yaraları çoğu zaman gizli olanlardır. En ağır bedeli ödeyenler de Suriyeli çocuklar. Savaşın yol açtığı şiddet ve acılar sonucu travma yaşayan bu çocukların psikolojik sorunlar yaşama, şiddet mağduru olma, çocuk evliliklerine zorlanma ve silahlı gruplara alınma riskleri de daha yüksektir.  

Zeynep works on the psychological front line of this war. She divides her day between a sparse but modern looking office where she meets as many as five patients a day and a cozy playroom where she spends time playing with children, both part of a child support center run by the Association for Solidarity for Asylum Seekers and Migrants(ASAM) in partnership with UNICEF. The ASAM Center provides a one-stop, comprehensive set of services for refugees including primary health and nutrition services, life skill and parenting trainings, Turkish lessons, community outreach and psychosocial support.

Ege Üniversitesi’nde yüksek lisans eğitimini sürdüren Zeynep işinde pek çok zorlukla boğuşuyor. Psikolojik yardım, özellikle aile terapisi Suriye kültüründe pek alışılmış bir şey değil. Babalar bu ziyaretlere nadiren katılırken, anneler de Arapça tercüman olarak çalışan Suriyeli bir asistanın yanında Zeynep’le bilgi paylaşırken gergin ve rahatsız olabiliyor. Yaygın inanca göre aile sorunlarının gizli tutulması gerekiyor.

Zeynep, who is studying for a Masters degree in psychology at Izmir’s Ege University, faces many hurdles. Psychological help, in particular family therapy, is not commonplace in Syrian culture. Fathers are rarely involved in the visit and mothers can be nervous and uncomfortable sharing information with Zeynep in front of the Syrian assistant who works as her Arabic translator. The pervasive belief is that family problems should be kept secret. 

"Bazı günler sadece dinliyorum"

“Most come to me first for help with symptoms such as bed-wetting, physical ticks, speech disorders and aggressive behavior,” Zeynep explained. “My job is not only to treat these visible problems but to address the trauma underneath and explain this to the parent.”

Anger is a frequent manifestation of trauma. For Zeynep, another challenge is how to address her patients’ traditional parenting style where corporeal punishment is common at home as well as in school. Working with mothers, she talks about children’s developmental milestones and notes their history from birth to the present. They focus on how to identify verbal and physical abuse, discrimination and bullying.
“I’ll tell a mother: ‘you shouldn’t beat your kids,’ and she’ll look surprised. She’ll say she cannot control their anger and that she is really under stress and can’t pay the rent and her husband has lost his job. I try to explain that the child is not responsible.”
With the children, she teaches deep breathing techniques to help them relax and manage anger issues. 
“Imagine you are filling a bowl with air or if you are angry imagine squeezing two lemons in your hands,” she tells them.
There are times when Zeynep feels caught up in a battle between cultures and stereotypes. To cope with her own work stress, she is planning to join monthly debriefings with seven other ASAM psychologists.
But she remains inspired by the tenacity and love of others. There was the father who was dedicated to trying to find ways to help his son with Down Syndrome and the mother devoted to helping her 9-year-old son overcome both the stuttering and the anger he had developed during the war. Her longest patient, a 13-year-old girl, who developed serious visible ticks after witnessing a bomb explosion, is doing better after weekly therapy and medication.
“I try to change the stereotypes,” Zeynep said. “I know it’s not realistic to feel satisfaction for all my cases. But I do feel satisfaction especially with the children.”
ASAMin collaboration with UNICEF, and with funding from the European Union Trust Fund supports refugees and asylum seekers in meeting their basic and social protection needs. The CFSCs established in partnership with UNICEF as part of the Syrian response effort, are a “one-stop” shop for beneficiaries and provide a series of child-friendly and child-centered services.