Several years ago, divine intervention connected me with some incredible humanitarians who have been working non-stop to make the world a better place – the Soudi sisters. These ladies are the very definition of a force to be reckoned with. From their #ToRebuildGaza campaign, to their apps to feed the world, to mental health for refugees; they are definitely doing more than their fair share to contribute to being the change they wish to see in the world.
I had the honor of catching up with my dear friend and sister Laila Soudi and listening to her mental health panel at Harvard Arab Weekend. Laila works with the Syrian American Medical Society as a mental health expert and in the psychiatry department of Stanford University School of Medicine. She has dedicated the majority of her life to working with refugees in Jordan and most recently in Greece. Below is a brief snippet of our conversation on the amazing work she has been doing.
Tell me how you became interested in working with refugees?
I grew up in Amman, Jordan to a Syrian-Palestinian family. Jordan is a tiny country of 10 million people, of whom, at least 40% are refugees. Refugees live both inside refugee camps and outside of camps in different cities across the country. That said, I was exposed to refugees’ inaccessibility to health services at a young age. I couldn’t understand why I could readily see a doctor while refugees less than a mile away could not; and what stood to differentiate us was solely our legal status. This never sat right with me considering the reality that these refugees were more vulnerable and needed access to health services more than I did.
How did you start working in the mental health field?
The earliest memory I can think of is when I was 11. I was in a Palestinian refugee camp when I met Alya, a 13 year old who’d been exposed to rape on a daily basis. She spoke about trauma and torture and how she desperately needed mental health care but did not know where to go. I realized then that mental health is not only the most neglected service, it is the most urgently needed. To think that a girl not much older than I was at the time dealing with this horrifying trauma but could not access the care she needed because of her refugee status seemed unfair. It has motivated me to make changes to ensure that other girls do not end up in similar situations.
A significant percentage of our population in Jordan urgently needs access to mental health services granted their trauma exposure. It is our responsibility to step up and ensure they have better access. Especially with children who are more susceptible when exposed to trauma at a young age, early childhood intervention is very important, so we need to do better for our future generations.
I realized then that mental health is not only the most neglected service, it is the most urgently needed.
How can people get involved to help dispel mental health stigmas for those in the Middle East and around the world?
Global starts local. Talk to your friends and family and check in. Make sure they’re doing okay. Statistically, at least a few people you know have a mental illness. Break down the stigma and normalize mental health simply by talking about it. Encourage others to talk about it.
Until we get to a point where mental health can be discussed the same way physical health can, we need to keep working to break the stigma. Letting people know they are not alone and that help is available can make it easier for people to open up about what’s truly going on.
In speaking with Laila, I remember all the different children I have encountered in my work with refugees, and echo her sentiments that we need to do better. Until all children have adequate access to mental health care and their basic humanitarian needs and fundamental human rights met, our work will never be done. As long as there are children who are witnessing the types of traumas that these children continue to see on an ongoing basis in different countries around the world, we will continue to do what we can to help provide the badly needed mental health services and connect these families with community resources.