SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. — For some Syrian refugees, “home” is no longer the plains of war-torn Syria but the densely populated cities of northern New Jersey. Since January this year, 86 refugees have arrived in the state, according to recent data from the Refugee Processing Center, and they have been resettled primarily in Paterson, Jersey City and Elizabeth: communities known for their large Arab-speaking populations.
Yet while the treacheries of war have been put behind them, these refugees face another ordeal: adapting to an entirely different culture. Women, for example, are known to suffer in silence, carrying heavy emotional burdens that can be hard to detect in a community that is not used to opening up to outsiders.
“It is overwhelming,” said Zillehuman Hasan of Wafa House in Clifton, a local nonprofit group that started as a service for victims of domestic violence but has branched into helping Syrian families in the area transition to their new environment. “They apply for Social Security assistance, but oftentimes they get lost in the system, and the language barrier only further complicates everything.”
Wafa House is one of many local organizations enhancing state and federal relief for refugees settling in New Jersey by running food and clothing drives, organizing fund-raisers and even visiting families to check on how they are faring.
Nadia Baghal, the auxiliary president of the state’s chapter of the National Arab American Medical Association, said that her team of volunteers goes to refugee housing establishments in Elizabeth and Jersey City regularly. The condition of the housing offered to refugees leaves much to be desired; mainly they consist of rundown apartments and may not be up to code. Baghal said that she and other volunteers sometimes get calls from families at all times of the night, complaining of vermin infesting their apartments.
“Everybody wants to help,” she said of the volunteers in the association, “but they don’t know how. We are trying to provide as much as we can.”
The struggle to adjust to an American lifestyle can be challenging for anyone new to the country, but with the Arab refugee women settling here, some problems can be outwardly hard to detect. Many of the women do not speak English, which limits their ability to ask for government assistance or to apply for a job. As a result, women become highly dependent on whatever aid they can find from nonprofit groups, including rental assistance and even diapers for their children.
Yet some women try to create a semblance of independence by starting their own businesses — home-order cooking, for example — to generate extra income for their families.
The women face more subtle worries besides finances, like living in a society that contrasts starkly with their more traditional mind-sets. Typically, in Arab culture, women are the problem-solvers, the force behind getting the family out of crisis. While burdensome, it is a social norm accepted by women, said Raja Salloum, a clinician at the Mental Health Association of Passaic County in Clifton.
As an expert who runs the association’s Arab-American counseling program, Salloum has observed a rise in cases where Syrian women are enduring the pressures they feel by trying to “get by,” she said, rather than enjoying their newfound safety and surroundings. The culture shock and the lack of extensive familial and communal support have not helped women trying to manage these burdens. Instead, the situation has left some of them experiencing afflictions like fainting spells and, worse, mental breakdowns.
Hasan of Wafa House thinks that such incidents are associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which she said was most likely undiagnosed and untreated for many of these women.
That possibility would not be far off. According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, post-traumatic stress disorder affects 4 percent to 86 percent of refugee populations. Studies have also shown that displaced people suffer from the disorder much more than people who have not suffered displacement, even if they, too, have experienced considerable war stress.
To raise awareness of the psychological realities of the Syrian refugee crisis in the greater New Jersey community, Seton Hall University, here in South Orange, hosted a panel discussion in October on “Understanding Syria.”
The event brought in experts from the refugee relief community to discuss the issues of relocation for Syrian families and the psychological toll that displacement takes on their lives. One panelist, Edina Skaljic, spoke about her own experience as a former refugee from Bosnia. Skaljic, who immigrated to the US when she was 16 years old, noted that many factors influence a refugee’s experience. She thought, however, that “undoubtedly, all refugees endure severe trauma,” though the levels of such trauma vary.
Although taking into account the grueling travel conditions that Syrian women faced to get from Syria to New Jersey, high levels of PTSD among the female refugee population are not easy to diagnose. Moreover, the condition can be difficult to treat in the Arab population, a community that generally attaches a stigma to mental health problems.
For instance, Salloum, the clinician, said that it can be hard for Arab women to trust mental health experts like herself, and that they instead tend to disclose personal information with a “religious figure, like an imam.” This means that women who are suffering are less likely to turn to mental health professionals for help, so they internalize their distress, which can result in, say, a physical ailment.
Syrian refugees may also be grappling with blatant or subtle hostility within their communities. It doesn’t help that Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said that no more Syrian refugees would be allowed into the state, or that Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, recently suggested banning foreign Muslims from the US altogether.
Baghal of the National Arab American Medical Association said that many Syrian refugees had already been afraid to come forward and seek her assistance, so Governor Christie’s remarks could further deter refugees from finding the resources they so desperately need.
Yet the supportive atmosphere the Arab community itself has engendered in the region has been helpful to Syrian women acclimating to their new environment. Through continued efforts and communication, refugee experts have witnessed more openness among the Syrian women they work with, talking about their mental health concerns.
The refugee crisis may even lead to a “greater acceptance” of therapy by the Syrian refugees, Salloum said, which has happened among other refugee women in the region from the Middle East, including from Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon.
Beyond the practical skills refugee women needed to thrive in the US — learning the language must be a priority, Baghal said — they needed mostly to build self-confidence.
Or as Salloum put it, to “find their voice.”
“Empowerment is really key,” Hassan said, “and the best means of doing that are through guidance and advocacy. Not only to tell them what to do, but that they have the ability to do it. Not only do we advocate for them, but they really need to learn to advocate for themselves.”
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Katherine M. Wolchko is a student majoring in diplomacy and international relations at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. She is an educational assistant at the Jewish Learning Center, Congregation Beth El, in South Orange, and was a regional representative for Choices in Childbirth, a nonprofit group focused on maternal rights. She is the creator and hostess of “The Woman’s Word,” a podcast on women and gender in contemporary society.