The Man Raising an Army of Psychologists in Iraq

Good initiative and investment:

A year after helping more than 1,000 escaped ISIS captives resettle in Germany, Kurdish-German psychologist Jan Ilhan Kizilhan has returned to northern Iraq with a plan to save thousands of other psychologically scarred war victims left behind.

With backing from the German state of Baden-Württemberg, Kizilhan has set out to train a new generation of psychologists and trauma specialists he believes will be among the most qualified in the Middle East

After years of war, Iraq and Syria are struggling with a mental health crisis neither country has the capacity to address. In northern Iraq alone, where more than 1 million people are displaced by violence, just a couple dozen local psychologists are believed to be treating patients.

Various nongovernmental organizations and government initiatives have sought to fill the gaps, including Baden-Württemberg’s asylum program, which physically transported some of the most psychologically scarred women and children in northern Iraq to a part of the world where they could more easily access mental health care.

As a dark measure of the German program’s effectiveness, its directors boast that of its 1,100 beneficiaries—mostly women held as ISIS sex slaves and their children—not one has taken his or her own life in contrast to some other ISIS survivors who didn’t get a spot in the program.

Mindful of the deadly stakes for those left behind, Baden-Württemberg invested 1.3 million euros, a small fraction of its annual budget, into Kizilhan’s new institute, which aims to cultivate the experts where they’re needed.

The Institute for Psychology and Psychotraumatology sits on a neatly manicured hill at the University of Duhok in northern Iraq. On a sunny morning in May, the campus, set against the backdrop of picturesque mountains, hummed with the sounds of lawn mowers.

Just a short drive away, hundreds of thousands of displaced people live in sprawling camps, each one having risen up in the wake of an exodus—from an ISIS advance, bombings, or clashes. Just 40 miles to the south, chunks of Mosul lay in ruin from a months-long battle to oust ISIS from the populous city. Forty miles to the west: the Syrian quagmire. And despite the campus’ unblemished appearance, everyone at the school seems to have been touched by war.

Hewan Avssan Omer, a 26-year-old secretary at the institute, only escaped a 2014 ISIS attack on her village because she happened to be away at school. The militants kidnapped other members of her family, some of whom escaped just months ago. Omer’s 7-year-old cousin spent two and a half years in captivity and returned to society unable to speak his native Kurdish, confused about who his parents are and where he is from.

The staff’s proximity to and familiarity with the local crisis is intentional.

One of the biggest criticisms of the German program was that it exposed trauma victims to the additional stress of culture shock by transporting them to a foreign place.

At his office in Baden-Württemberg in early 2016, Kizilhan said the United Nations refugee agency was one of the critics to raise this concern of detaching victims “from their roots.” The German team responded that it was a price they were willing to pay, at that precarious time, for potentially saving lives. “In Iraq they are living in camps, their parents are killed, they have no roots!” Kizilhan responded. “It’s ridiculous. They need stabilization and security before they can talk about how it felt to be raped and helpless. How do you do this in a tent?”

Source: The Man Raising an Army of Psychologists in Iraq

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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