or Muntaser, it’s the memory of militiamen raiding his village in Darfur. For Ahmad, who fled Afghanistan as a child, it’s the terrible vision of his father murdering his mother and sister. Abdul saw his home city devastated by Saudi bombs.
Hundreds of thousands of migrants have crossed deserts, the snows of the Alps, or Balkan forests carrying the weight of similarly traumatic events, to find a new life in an increasingly inhospitable Europe. Once they get there – if they do – how do they begin to process the painful experiences that prompted their journeys?
Depression, PTSD, anxiety, self-harming, insomnia and panic attacks are among the growing mental health issues faced by asylum seekers who find themselves trapped in fear and uncertainty in Europe. In camps on the outskirts of major cities, or in safe houses, or on the pavements of European capitals, a million people await their destiny. Aid groups such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have been forced to step in to provide psychiatric care for this population of often highly disturbed people.
Where do you start? Gordana Maksimovic, a psychologist with MSF in Belgrade, says that a large part of her role is listening to people’s stories and offering them a human response. “Torture works by isolating you from others,” she says. “The only way to help is to reconnect on a human level and bring people back to society, where they belong. To reduce stigma by saying that they are not abnormal – but that what has happened to them is.”
‘When they learned of my sex change at the university, I was sacked’
Moona, 33, left Iran in 2018 and now lives in a safe house in Belgrade, Serbia
Moona was thrilled when her wife told her she was expecting a baby – and decided in that moment never to hide her true identity from her child. Though she had dreamed of being pregnant herself, Moona was not yet able to be the woman she is today; she was then living as a male Iranian university professor, married to her cousin. After learning of the pregnancy, she decided to transition, “because I wanted to be a true mother to my child, rather than a false father”.
was born and raised in a small town in western Iran. “I remember once asking my mother if I could wear makeup before attending a wedding,” she says. “She told me that my father would kill both of us if I did. That’s when I understood the danger of expressing my true self in public, and decided to follow the strict rules of society.”
Instead she threw herself into her education. On the advice of her family, and a doctor to whom she expressed her gender identity, she married, but afterfour years decided to transition. Iran forbids homosexuality, but it does allow citizens to undergo state-funded gender affirmation surgery. At the beginning of 2015, tired of living as a man, Moona signed up.
Soon after, she fell in love with a man and remarried. It cost her dearly, however, as her ex-wife – who refused to allow her to see her daughter – threatened to expose her. “When they learned of my sex change at work, I was sacked,” Moona says. “A few nights later, my father came and told me that my brother would kill me if I didn’t leave. So in August 2018 I made it to Serbia on a fake British passport that a smuggler had given me. At the border I was kept in detention with 24 men in the same small room without any protection – they wanted to force me to return home.”
Today Moona lives in Belgrade, and suffers from panic and anxiety attacks, far from both her daughter and the man she loves. She has been granted asylum and offered resettlement in France, but is waiting for details. Meanwhile, she lives in a safe house for vulnerable people.
A few months ago she began undergoing therapy at the MSF clinic. “Therapy is helping me – we meet regularly. But things are changing very slowly. I’m lonely and homesick, and feel out of control of my life.”
She, too, likes to paint, and hopes to exhibit her work. “In a normal world, my choice would have granted me happiness. But taking possession of my sexuality has cost me everything I had.”