The nightmarish lives of refugee children


Dying from the fear of death seems as aberrant as feeding oneself with the thought of food, rather than food itself. The notion seems outlandish, but it was prevalent in aboriginal societies during the mid-20th century. American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon called this phenomenon ‘voodoo death’, where people condemned to death by a shaman were so frightened that their bodies started to wither on their own until they died a few days later. Explaining the phenomenon, Cannon wrote in his paper on fatal terror: “It is the fatal power of the imagination working through unmitigated terror.” Today, this fatal power of imagination has become a living nightmare for children around the world. Especially refugee children who have left their homes with their parents to escape endless injustice, but find themselves homeless in a big, scary world.

Siblings Djeneta and Ibadeta are refugees living in Sweden. They are far away from the abomination they suffered in their home state Kosovo, but their battle to survive is far from over. A few years ago, their parents came to Sweden in search of a safe haven, as it was impossible for them to raise their young girls in Kosovo, where they were persecuted by the government on the basis of their ethnicity. The adolescents had already seen more aggression and violence than an average person would witness in a lifetime. When they came to Sweden, the girls were delighted, thinking that bad days were a thing of the past. But soon, the migration board rejected their request for asylum in Sweden and asked them to go back.

When the children heard the news about the deportation, it was a shock greater than anything they had experienced. The mere thought of leaving their peaceful life—with kind neighbours, good friends, and no one to rob them of their fundamental rights—paralysed their bodies. To this day, the siblings are living on tubes, under the care of home nurses and their parents. According to the doctors, the girls have lost their will to live, as they don’t see any reason to go on in a world that is so full of unfairness and cruelty.

There are hundreds of refugee children like Djeneta and Ibadeta who are diagnosed with the same illness—uppgivenhetssyndrom, also known as resignation syndrome. Children afflicted by this syndrome no longer have the will to live. The disorder stems from the trauma of deportation to their homeland, which is either a theatre of war, a terrorist territory, or a state where the government has disowned them because they are a minority. In the medical journal Acta Paediatrica, child psychiatrist Göran Bodegård describes children with resignation syndrome as “totally passive, immobile, lacking tonus, withdrawn, mute, unable to eat and drink, incontinent and not reacting to physical stimuli or pain”. It is difficult to imagine the amount of aggression or hostility these children must have witnessed; they would rather die than go back to the hell they escaped from.

While there is no dearth of compassion in human beings, it often seems like there is none.

Dr Nisha Alosious, a US-based psychiatrist, spoke to Soulveda about the humanitarian crisis faced by refugees today—which is second to only World War II—and what we can do to support these children. “Most of the refugee children are helpless, as their parents are neither educated nor capable of protecting their children from the curse of war and violence,” she explains. “As a society, we should educate parents on child abuse and violence against children, and extend support to families seeking asylum,” Dr Alosious adds.

Isolated in a culture that can’t relate to their traumas, refugee children find little help from the world that can get too busy to care. But it is not as if these children just need a roof over their heads to be safe from violence and aggression. Many incidents of child abuse occur within the confines of these very walls. These acts of physical, sexual and emotional maltreatment not only steal the innocence of children but also strip them of their voice and confidence. A study conducted by King’s College London supports the notion that multiple personality disorder in adults can be a result of traumatic childhood experiences. This shows how deep the scars of abuse can run in children.

Protecting refugee children from aggression and violence, therefore, becomes a critical pursuit. But how often does such a cause find support on the grassroots level? It is on the front lines of society where such battles need to be fought. So, what stands in the way?

While there is no dearth of compassion in human beings, it often seems like there is none. The race of life and immediate concerns leave little room to think about issues that don’t concern us directly. But to address the blight of issues like child abuse, there needs to be an increased sense of empathy. Countless children like Djeneta and Ibadeta, are still waiting for people to feel their grief, to lend them a helping hand, and to grant them the peaceful lives they deserve to live.


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