When you see someone with difficulties breathing these days, you may suspect that they are suffering from COVID-19. But being forced to stay at home during the pandemic can also be suffocating for some, especially for those with pre-existing mental conditions.
When the second wave of the pandemic hit Turkey in late 2020, the government re-imposed restrictions to curb the spread of the virus. While social distancing may protect physical health, it can have a significant impact on some people’s mental health and wellbeing.
Amani is one of those people. She is a single mother from Idlib, Syria. She fled her country with her four children after her first husband passed away at the beginning of the conflict and her second husband divorced her. She came alone to Hatay with her four sons.
She struggled for two years to find a job. Meanwhile, she socially isolated herself after hearing of incidents related to tension between Syrian refugees and host communities. She felt alone.
“There were moments when I broke into tears or burst out with anger,” she said.
“I did not know what was wrong with me. Each time I got sick and had breathing problems, doctors could not do anything because they said it was a psychological issue. I could not find a solution.”
When Amani started working, she was afraid of prejudices but needed the job to earn a living. To her surprise, she discovered a different reality.
Amani’s coworkers signed her up for Turkish classes and they even tried to learn Arabic to assist her. She felt safe and started to change. She went out more often and felt better. She no longer felt sick at that time, especially when her mother joined her in 2019.
Unfortunately, the good time came to an end. When the coronavirus pandemic reached Turkey at the beginning of 2020, she lost her job. She lost her source of income and schools were closed. Her sons and elderly mother had to stay at home because of the curfew introduced to protect at-risk groups such as elders and minors.
“I had to buy groceries and carry them home without the help of my teenage boy and had to think of how to save money for my family,” she said.
“I could not sign up for any online class because I had to save money for my boys. I was the one who had to bear the whole responsibility without having someone to talk to. I went back to the point where I was trapped and sick,” she paused as her eyes filled with tears.
“I was suffocating.”
A moment came when a friend of hers told her about a series of online sessions offered by the Danish Refugees Council (DRC). Funded by the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), DRC runs serialised online sessions targeting refugees in Turkey and focusing on stress management. The six sessions covered different types of stress, coping skills to deal with it and open discussions.
Amani attended stress management sessions at first.
“I started to understand myself better and learned a lot of things I did not know before. There were ways to deal with stress like breathing and meditation. They help me relax and think of solutions I would not think of when I am under stress,” she said.
“I also realised that there were other people in the same circumstances. That made me feel that I wasn’t alone.”
After the stress management sessions, Amani joined DRC’s drop-in sessions funded by the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), which were one-time sessions covering different topics such as healthy sleeping and alternatives to traditional punishment of children.
“Those sessions motivated me and made me feel I had an important task,” she said.
“I woke up every day and finished my chores to be able to focus on the sessions. I loved the fact that I can learn new things while being with my children and save time and costs on transportation.”
Those sessions became a part of Amani’s life. She was sharing the information she received with friends and encouraged them to attend the sessions. She shared the screenshots of the presentations to discuss the topics with her sons and mother. Her relationship with her sons improved and she invited her mother to join the sessions. Now, Amani is planning to sign up for vocational training to learn new skills and improve her employment opportunities.