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Refugees Struggle With Mental Illness, Suicide Attempts Increase


As the United Nations marks World Refugee Day, which is today, we're going to turn our attention to the record 65 million people displaced from their homes around the globe - 65 million. Many war refugees are languishing in camps. And aid groups say that as hope of resettlement dims, mental illness is on the rise. Joanna Kakissis reports from one camp in Greece.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: The Vial refugee camp is tucked into the wooded hills of Chios, a Greek island near Turkey that's a summer playground for shipping tycoons. Surrounded by a small metal fence and guarded by police, the camp houses a thousand people, including Manal, a very young looking 42-year-old grandmother from Syria. She did not want her last name used because she fears for her family in Damascus.

MANAL: (Through interpreter) It's hot and very dirty in this camp - the toilets especially. There are a lot of fights, especially between Syrians and Afghans. The Afghans think only their asylum requests are refused. But that's not true. Ours are refused, too. My own son was refused.

KAKISSIS: Her son Ubay is 19. They've already been here for two months and expect to wait at least nine more for his appeals to be heard. She has seen what this limbo has done to other young men.

MANAL: (Through interpreter) I saw one cutting himself on the chest with a razor. He had been rejected, too, and had already waited such a long time.

KAKISSIS: She's terrified her son will also harm himself. Last March, in this camp, a 27-year-old Syrian man poured gasoline on his T-shirt and set himself on fire. The desperate act was caught on a cellphone video. Others in the camp screamed as they watched flames engulf him. The young man, Ali Aamer, died a week later with 85 percent of his body burned. There are currently about 14,000 migrants on Greek islands waiting for asylum.

KIKI MICHAILIDOU: This situation is incredibly debilitating on their mental health. They feel devastated. They feel exhausted.

KAKISSIS: Psychologist Kiki Michailidou works with the International Rescue Committee on the island of Lesbos, where she spoke to us via Skype. She's also seen a rise in suicide attempts.

MICHAILIDOU: People would put knives on their throats and going in the middle of the road trying to be killed by passing cars. We've had incidents of people trying to drown themselves in the sea.

KAKISSIS: A report by Save the Children revealed that kids as young as 9 are cutting themselves. Others suffer from bed-wetting, persistent nightmares and depression. Another Syrian mother at the Chios camp, 29-year-old Shifa’a, worries because her five young children hear grown men threatening to kill themselves. Her 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter Mariam is afraid to close her eyes.

SHIFA'A: (Through interpreter) She's too scared to sleep. She cries a lot, especially when it's dark. She wants us to keep the lights on all the time.

KAKISSIS: The mental health of refugee kids is now a major concern for Jill Biden, who is now board chairwoman of Save the Children.

JILL BIDEN: These children really have, you know, they have PTSD. They've been traumatized. But there aren't enough psychological services available. And that's what we have - that has to be a priority.

KAKISSIS: Biden traveled to Chios with Carolyn Miles, the aid organization's president. Miles points out that a whole generation of kids is growing up in refugee camps all over the world.

CAROLYN MILES: Whatever happens to these children, that is going to have a big impact on all of the Middle East and in many of the places where these kids end up.

KAKISSIS: What happens to those children now, she says, will affect what the world looks like in the years ahead. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis on the Greek island of Chios.

(SOUNDBITE OF FAT JON'S "MAIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.

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