On Thursday, a haunting photo of a toddler-aged boy who survived an airstrike in Aleppo surfaced on the Internet. His name is Omran Daqneesh, and his small frame caked with dust and blood served as a vivid reminder to those who are privileged enough to forget that a war still rages in Syria.
The image of Omran as he awaits treatment at one of the few hospitals that remain standing in Aleppo not only evokes crisis, but also numbness. Omran unleashes no tears, wails or thrashing limbs. Rather, he sits silently, hands curved across his thighs, and stares directly at the camera. He reportedly emitted no sound during his rescue from the depths of airstrike rubble.
In response to queries about Omran’s nearly comatose composure, a spokesperson for the Aleppo Media Center, the group who originally shared the photo, stated, “He was in extreme shock.”
Omran’s striking gaze in combination with his bloodied face and dusted body captures the twofold mental and physical trauma that shapes the lives of refugees, especially those who are children. According to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, nearly 50 percent of Syrian refugee children undergo symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This statistic alone soars ten times above the world average for children.
The staggering amount of mental trauma originates in the deluge of physical violence these children come into contact with on a daily basis. In Syria, explosions rumble between the Assad regime, anti-regime coalitions, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This lethal crossfire has left behind a death toll of over 470,000. The Migration Policy Institute report indicates that 79 percent of Syrian refugee children have witnessed a familial death. A majority of them—60 percent—have seen someone else, whether a family member or passerby, get physically hurt, and 30 percent have themselves experienced physical pain in the form of kicking or shooting.
Fortunately, Syrian refugees and their families have seized opportunities to escape, mostly to Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, as well as countries in western and Eastern Europe. Yet the trauma does not fade upon their crossing a border as immigrants with refugee status. In fact, in a foreign environment, the trauma persists and reemerges.
Fleeing Syria to begin with contains its own array of perils, from smugglers, to scammers, to even turning back as a result of getting caught. After researching and hearing the stories of refugees, BBC created a quiz that simulates the obstacles Syrian refugees face on the journey. This study exposes the sinister unlikelihood of escape, as well as the constant state of fear and anxiety that plagues the refuge seeker.
To come out from the journey intact and able to start resettlement introduces another set of challenges. The interview processes for those seeking asylum are notorious for their triggering methods that lack empathy in regards to the trauma of war, escape and violence. Refugee families, especially those who resettle in Europe, are likely to experience harassment and racism. Additionally, they must also often calibrate themselves to the linguistic barriers that greet them upon arrival to a host country. For refugee children in particular, these hurdles manifest in the forms of hardship with bullying and language comprehension in schools.
The photo glimpse of Omran Daqneesh cannot possibly capture the unfortunate wealth of trauma that inevitably affects refugees, particularly children. Contrary to several headlines who claim Omran as the face of the Syrian war, this young boy has his own story and future. His psyche will likely never forget the airstrike he was fortunate enough to survive. Rather than representing a war, Omran represents himself. His presence acknowledges a truth essential to remember in times of crisis: the wounds suffered are by no means just physical, or temporary.