6 Jan 2016

World events stir dark memories for refugees

10:08 am on 6 January 2016

World events are triggering traumatic, and previously forgotten memories for refugees, a Kuwaiti woman who fled to New Zealand as a child says.

Ghadair Alshemari, a Kuwaiti woman who fled to New Zealand as a child.

Ghadair Alshemari, a Kuwaiti woman who fled to New Zealand as a child. Photo: RNZ / Nicole Pryor

Ghadair Alshemari was six when she and her family escaped the war between Kuwait and Iraq.

She said her house was raided, she was questioned by soldiers, and her father was taken for two years, without anyone knowing where he was.

But, she said, she didn't remember events like these until a few years ago - and she's not the only one suffering.

Ghadair said painful memories, hidden away until very recently, had suddenly made themselves known.

"The fire sirens remind me of when the Iraqi soldiers came."

Ms Alshemari said when she arrived in New Zealand she blended in well at a new school, made new friends and lived a typical childhood here - and she managed to shake off the terrifying events of the previous few years.

But speaking to a symposium on migrant and refugee health last month, she told the audience that ever since the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001, and subsequent conflicts in the Middle East, new memories had surfaced.

"Every time I'm going forward, I'm going two steps back of memory. Things I actually didn't even think about, things I don't remember. Them taking my father, things like when he came back, I don't remember that when I was younger."

The keynote speaker at the symposium, Jorge Aroche, is the head of the New South Wales Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors.

He said the popular assumption was that children could always bounce back.

"Not that many years ago, we thought largely that children were tremendously resilient, and it was the parents that we mainly focussed on," said Mr Aroche.

But, he said, in their organisation at least there's been a realisation of how trauma actually affects children and the way memory works.

"Many of the memories of children when they're younger are pre-verbal and therefore not easily accessible. It doesn't mean they're not there."

Mr Aroche said the harmful memories could often stay hidden but still affected a person's life.

"It is certainly there and it does affect children as they go through school and so on, it's just that they don't develop the capacity to realise... how it affects them later in life.

"For many people sadly, they never get to the point of realising that those memories are still inside them and still affecting the way they react to the world and the way they relate, reacting in certain situations."

Speaking after the symposium, Ghadair, who is now 30 and part of a support network for women and youth, said more and more people were coming to her to ask for help, since she shared her own experiences.

"The bad stuff that happened, which I mean is the gunpoints, the soldiers, my father coming back a different person, all that stuff has happened [in other conflicts] this year.

She said in her work with youth she was able to connect with those who had come from conflict zones because she was able to understand what they were going through.

"There's other things you know, that we go through here, you know whatever's happening around the world is affecting us because you know, our families are there, our cousins are there, are dying, are getting killed, are getting raped, so that's on top of all the things that have been in the past.

"The past is coming back to our future and our future are going behind us."

The lead mental health agency for refugees and asylum seekers in New Zealand is Refugees as Survivors and is based at the resettlement centre in Mangere.

Chief executive Ann Hood said memories could resurface at any time in life.

"It can take a very long time for people to process what's happened to them, so especially trauma can be triggered at any stage during a lifetime and it would seem that with this young woman, things that are coming up in the media now are actually bringing back what she had forgotten as a child, and that isn't unusual."

But Ms Hood said the service was stretched and needed more funding to help people who came forward in these situations.

"Being more aware of what's happening in communities, being more engaged so that we can pick up things at an earlier stage - it would be great to have more clinicians, it would be great to have community bases which are stable and are well serviced and resourced so that we can actually be working in local communities where the need is."

Ms Alshemari is now writing a book about her experiences and is calling for support for young people, aged 15 to 30.