Death of 9-year-old Syrian girl raises alarm bells among mental health advocates

April 21, 2019

By Globe News |

The death of nine-year-old Syrian refugee Amal Alsheteiwi has sparked a new discussion on the mental wellbeing of newcomers to Canada. Alshteiwi took her own life after reporting several incidences of bullying at school.

Following the death of a nine-year-old Syrian girl in Calgary, those working with young newcomers say it is an extreme outcome of a larger issue that many are facing.

“It’s extremely real. If you go and visit schools with refugee kids, you can see they are isolated, they are struggling,” said Zainab Ibrahim, a counsellor with DIVERSEcity in Vancouver. “My biggest fear is already happening … a young girl took her life.”

Amal Alshteiwi died in March after her parents said she told them she had been bullied at school for months. Amal’s parents insist they reached out to their daughter’s teacher, but the Calgary Board of Education disputes this. One thing is clear: the little Syrian-Calgarian girl’s well-being was in serious jeopardy, and some worry she may not be the only one in trouble.

“Yes, they left war, but the trauma is still alive. My biggest fear is that those kids won’t heal or thrive from the post-migration trauma that they could experience,” said Ibrahim, who came to Canada as a refugee from Iraq when she was 15.

Ibrahim said discussing mental health is still a major taboo in some cultures. Combine that with language barriers and a lack of knowledge about the resources available, and Ibrahim says it can be hard to reach out for help.

Psychiatrist and researcher Prof. Morton Beiser from the University of Toronto says one in five refugee children who experience trauma suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Trauma of leaving behind what they know, trauma of being separated from family — many children have had trauma in the home country,” Beiser said from Toronto.

“It’s all too common for children to face discrimination, and we have research that shows discrimination does affect mental health,” he added.

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