November 8, 2017

“I have a lot of family who are affected by the conflict. I know how much they struggle, and how poor their mental health and emotional well-being is.”

Alia Salam  recently started working with the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) in Lebanon, as the Psychosocial Support Project Director.  For Alia, who is half Syrian, half Lebanese, her work is intensely personal.

Although Alia has been working with SAMS in the Bekaa Valley for a month, her relationship with SAMS started years ago, as a student in Philadelphia. When the Syrian conflict erupted, Alia took action.  She participated in SAMS’s Saving Lives campaign, fundraising and helping to recruit volunteers.

Shortly thereafter, Alia started her Master’s Degree in Public Health, with the goal of one day working with SAMS on the ground.

Her studies were also intertwined with the work of SAMS. As a graduate student, her thesis tackled the issue of communication disorders in Syrian refugee children. She worked with the psychologists on the ground, analyzing their data on speech language problems, and creating recommendations. She shared these recommendations with the administration, who planned to implement them, and asked Alia to come on board.

“I felt like I can’t ignore my people and live in the bubble. I can’t work away from the problems that my people are suffering from,” she says, describing her calling and commitment to the Syrian people.

In her work at SAMS’s psychosocial facility in Lebanon, housed in a multi-specialty clinic, she has seen high levels of anxiety and depression.

“Many people are depressed due to their circumstance, the environment they live in. They have many needs that they cannot meet,” she says, adding that the combination of a depressed economic situation with poor social circumstances directly leads to depression.

She describes one refugee patient she met suffering from anxiety. Her husband has a physical disability and cannot work, and he is diabetic. Her son also has a medical problem and needs surgery. The family cannot afford to pay their rent, so their landlord forced this patient to do housework in lieu of paying their rent.

“They don’t have any income and they are being exploited,” Alia said,  

“We referred them to the UNHCR for legal and financial assistance and protection. The coordinator responded, and raised the issue to the right departments.”

In order to respond to the humanitarian needs as well as the psychosocial needs, Alia is working with her team to strengthen a huge network of NGOs for humanitarian aid referrals.

With this system, she wants to ensure no one is left out – “if people come to us, and discuss their circumstances, we don’t just take them to the psychotherapist, we refer them an NGO who can help them.”

“We try to provide a holistic treatment,” Alia says.

Psychosocial support in Lebanon also relies heavily on traditional cognitive behavioral therapy for depression and anxiety.  

“For refugees, this is seven years of being displaced and being traumatized by war,” Alia says.