Roja Massoumi, 31, is a clinical psychologist. She grew up in Göttingen and studied in Osnabrück, Graz and Istanbul. Now, she is coordinating the Mental Health Project for adults on Lesvos.
You were a volunteer on Lesvos for the first time in 2016. Today you are the coordinator of the Mental Health Project for adults. What motivated you?
I grew up as a person of color in a predominantly white society in Germany. My parents are Iranians living in exile. They managed to provide us a good life in Germany despite many obstacles. Early on, I knew that I owed my privileges to my parents and that I was lucky to grow up in safety with a German passport. Because of my own family history, I wanted to put my knowledge and skills to good use – and share it with people that did not have the same privilege as me.
Your offer of help is aimed specifically at men who are on the move alone. Why?
We realised that many men who are on the move alone, are often being disadvantaged by the system. Most of them are between 19-28 years old and are deprived of their youth. They often experience stigmatization and racism and are excluded from basic support services. People are more likely to donate for families, children, and women and the latter also receive more specific assistance and other advantages. One example: families in the camp have now moved into small containers – those are still unworthy living conditions. Single men, on the other hand, are not entitled to receive this minimal improvement in living conditions. They still live in communal tents, in the past sometimes with more than 100 other people in a very confined space, without any possibility of some privacy.
Since the fire in the Moria camp in September 2020, the number of people living in the initial reception camp on Lesvos has significantly decreased. Who still lives in the camp today?
Due to so-called push backs, people are illegally and violently prevented from entering Europe, while people who receive a positive decision to their asylum claim leave the island. Therefore, the number of camp residents is decreasing. It is mainly people on the move whose asylum applications have been rejected who have to stay behind. The asylum procedures that led to these decisions were partly done without legal advice and, apparently, often unlawful. Single men in particular are more likely to have their asylum applications rejected. Some of them have been living here for two, three or four years – some even longer. At the same time, they see how other people can move on. This is very stressful and increases a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness. But although the conditions here are inhumane and the situation seems hopeless for many, a return to the country of origin is not an option.
The majority of your patients come from Afghanistan. How do you overcome the language barriers?
That’s correct. 22 of the 25 men we currently support individually come from Afghanistan. That’s why we work closely with so-called ‘cultural mediators’. Some of them live in the camp and are waiting for the decision of their asylum application. Without our colleagues from the refugee and asylum seeker community, our work would be impossible. They not only help us with language and cultural understanding, but also point out possible mistakes we make due to our Eurocentric education. We are currently a team of five, including two clinical psychologists, a mental health worker and two cultural mediators.
How did the Corona pandemic add to the already straining life of your patients?
The pandemic and the resulting lockdown have led to a significant increase in mental health symptoms. Not everyone who wants to has access to a vaccination, the conditions in the quarantine area of the camp are unbearable, people are subjected to racist police controls and are locked up in the camp like in a prison. While vaccinated people can mostly move around freely in Greece, for several months people residing in the camp have only been allowed to leave for a few hours per week. They are forced to spend the rest of their time in an inhumane place and are deliberately excluded from public life.
What kind of symptoms do the men have, that use the offer of talking to you?
Most people have had traumatic experiences in their country of origin. They were forced to flee from conflict, war, persecution and violence. Additionally, they also experienced traumatizing events during their flight – in recent times increasingly violent illegal push backs and violence from police and border guards. Yet, the potentially traumatizing experiences do not stop after their arrival. They are denied a safe and stable environment and experience ‘continuous traumatic stress’. As a result, many have experienced complex traumatization over several years of their lives and in some cases show a chronification of their symptoms.
Of course, there is a large variety of medical symptoms in the camp. But severe psychological symptoms are currently the norm as well. This shows itself from trauma-related symptoms, insomnia, panic attacks, depressive behavior, grief, extreme sadness and hopelessness to self-harming behavior and increased suicidal thoughts.
Are there patients that you can not admit into the programme?
We try to offer everyone support who comes to us. However, we do not admit people who express active suicidal intentions or require additional psychiatric treatment. Instead, we refer them to suitable partner organizations that can, at best, offer the right help.