How Dr Essam Daod is helping refugees overcome their traumatic experiences

March 16, 2022
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In late 2015, Dr Essam Daod found himself standing on a beach in Greece.

The psychiatrist and other volunteers watched as numerous small boats, filled with hundreds of people fleeing war and persecution in Syria, landed.

“[It was] something that no human being should see or witness, and no human being should suffer,” Dr Daod tells ABC RN’s Sunday Extra.

Dr Daod and his wife volunteered on the shores of Lesvos until the end of 2016, and the unspeakable suffering he witnessed changed the course of his life.

Almost one million displaced Syrians, who were fleeing the civil war and ISIS, arrived in Greece during 2015 and 2016. And almost 12,000 migrants drowned between 2014 and 2018 attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

 “We used to wait on the beach for the boats, and I was shaking, I used to go to the Jeep and have the heater on maximum,” he says.

In addition to offering first aid, Dr Daod worked extensively with these adults and children to help them overcome the trauma they’d faced and assist them with the mental health challenges that come with being a refugee.

And it was these experiences that inspired him and his wife to set up Humanity Crew, an organisation devoted to making mental health a priority in humanitarian crisis responses.

A change in career

Dr Daod grew up in Israel in a small Palestinian village in the Galilee.

Before he became a psychiatrist, he studied to become a surgeon.

“As a Palestinian minority here in Israel, we grew up in a situation that you need to be the best. …Being a surgeon, it’s …  like the best you can achieve,” he says.

But in the middle of his surgical residency, he began to question his path.

“It’s my boss who said: ‘Essam, you’re talking too much to the people and we need to make operations. Maybe you just think about psychiatry, I think it’s more suitable for you’,” he recalls.

So he switched. It was during the middle of his second residency that he began volunteering in Lesvos.

His medical training came in handy during that time.

“These two, three years in surgeries, I thought it was for nothing. It actually was the most valuable knowledge I ever had, because I saved many children,” he says.

“On another hand, I lost many.”

On October 28, 2015, he witnessed the aftermath of a shipwreck. It was carrying more than 300 refugees from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Kurdistan, and resulted in at least 43 fatalities.

“I had to confirm deaths for tens of children,” he says of the harrowing experience.

The experience of one young boy named Ahmed had a profound impact on him.

Ahmed had survived the shipwreck after receiving CPR administered by Dr Daod, but he wasn’t responding to medical treatment.

“He had been three days in the hospital, physically healthy … but on the other hand, it’s like I created a robot,” he says.

“He didn’t cry. He didn’t sleep, you had to close his eyes and basically when you put a needle in his arm, he didn’t even react. They had to feed him [via] the tube.”

His wife Maria, who was volunteering in the refugee camps, persevered with the boy. She began talking to him every day, making him food and trying to play games.

“And then he started to react, and he just took Maria’s hand and he said ‘I want to go home’. This was the first three words he said,” Dr Daod says.

Maria is a lawyer, not a psychologist, but her care made the difference.

“She’s just practising humanity. And that’s all she did,” he says.

It made him realise that he needed to approach his volunteer work differently.

“I realised that I just go to the place where I became a surgeon again. And I forgot that I am a psychiatrist. I’m the one who needs to take care of the soul and the mind.

“What these people are are human beings that actually have a mind and a soul next to the body. And if you want to save them, you need to save their souls also.”

Reframing trauma

It was this realisation that inspired the creation of Humanity Crew.

Early mental health intervention is important, he says, especially with children.

He remembers another young boy he met in 2015, named Omar.

“We received the boat that just arrived at the beach … there was not too much to do as a medical doctor. But there was a kid who was screaming,” he recalls.

After surviving the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea, young Omar was terrified, vomiting from seasickness, while his mother was shaking and wet.

The child was only four or five years old and, amid the terror he’d just experienced at sea, he was also overwhelmed by a police helicopter hovering above. He asked Dr Daod what it was.

“He said, ‘I’m a hero?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure. I am afraid from boats and look how you did it. Can you tell me how you did it?'”

The two kept talking and gradually the boy’s expression changed.

“Then [he] starts saying, ‘Yeah, I stopped the waves with my hands. And there was a shark, and my dad was crying. And I helped him.'”

Later the boy showed him where he sat in the boat. Dr Daod asked a group of waiting photojournalists to photograph the boy.

“They were taking pictures and showing him and he is like, ‘Yeah, I am the hero kid’.

“And he just smiled at me at the end.”

Dr Daod realised that if he could help refugees reframe the traumatic experiences they’d had right from the beginning, it would help them later when they underwent further treatment.

“If we want to help someone going through trauma, we need also to take care of his mind. And not only his basic needs [of] food and shelter,” he adds.

On the ground and online

Humanity Crew volunteers continue their operations in Greece, training thousands of people and mental health professionals in psychosocial work. They’ve also worked on the border of Venezuela and Brazil too, as well as in Beirut.

And there’s an online clinic, run by mental health professionals, which aims to help refugees with their mental health wherever they are.

The idea behind it was to overcome borders, cultural differences and language.

“I remember that everyone was laughing about us in 2015,” he says.

“[They said] ‘Oh, you’re going to provide mental health [support] to refugees through online services’ [and] we said yes. And when COVID hit, everyone wanted to learn from us, [about] how we do this.”

Dr Daod continues to help refugee children reshape their experiences to become heroes in their own story.

But he also takes great comfort in witnessing acts of humanity from others. He remembers what he saw on the beach in those early days.

“This meeting between volunteers, aid workers, and locals with a stranger who just came from hell … and somehow, there’s this really true moment,” he recalls.

“No religion, no borders, no culture — this first hug is so pure.”

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