Iraqi refugees in Sacramento struggle to find mental health care

Sacramento is now home to 2,700 Iraqi refugees, many of whom have brought the war with them. 

Nearly all are battling the symptoms of post-traumatic stress, including insomnia (59 percent), depression (44 percent), headaches (41 percent) and fear (38 percent), according to a report released by the UC Davis Health System Clinical and Translational Science Center. 

"One woman described in detail the murder of her husband as he was shot in front of her and her children, and how the murderers attempted to kill her children," the report said. 

"Her son was 3 1/2 years old at the time and now frequently draws pictures of the bloody scene while looking at his father's photograph." Although the boy is getting help from school counselors here, the mother suffered a nervous breakdown and has been unable to support her family. 

Because of their reluctance to discuss mental problems with counselors and their inability to navigate the U.S. health care system, most Iraqi refugees don't get the help they need, said research program manager Linda Ziegahn. 

"These people would not have come here if the U.S. had not invaded Iraq," Ziegahn said. "They were displaced, and they have no choice … Most are getting really frustrated with the American health care system." 

Some have actually gone back to Syria and Jordan – where they spent years in refugee camps – for medical treatment, Ziegahn said. 

The report, based on interviews with 34 local Iraqi refugees, was conducted with the help of Opening Doors, a refugee resettlement agency, and the Mesopotamia Organization, an Iraqi self-help agency started by Sarmed Ibrahim, an engineer from Iraq. 

 "I want to thank the U.S. for making us feel safe, and where our kids can get the best education in the world," Ibrahim said. "But after at least 10 years of suffering, most of us need mental care. It takes 3-4 months to get an appointment with a psychiatrist covered by Medi-Cal." 

The lack of help with medical issues is affecting their ability to get jobs, Ibrahim said. But there aren't enough Medi-Cal doctors to go around, said Marissa Ramos, chief of the California Refugee Health Program. Even in Sacramento County, to get in to see the doctor will take up to six months. 

If they can finally talk to a psychiatrist, many are afraid to. "I do not like speaking about personal problems in public," one refugee said. "Whoever sees a psychiatrist is considered 'crazy'; that is why we are lagging behind … ." 

From 2007-2011, Sacramento got 560 of the 14,610 Iraqi refugees resettled in California, according to Opening Doors. 

But the true number is now five times that because of new arrivals from the Middle East – and hundreds of Iraqi refugees are flooding into Sacramento from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and other states, seeking good weather and cheap rent, Ibrahim said. 

About 20 desperate Iraqi refugees have recently been relocated here from Santa Clara County and Oakland, said Haitham Jasim of the San Jose-based Asian Americans for Community Involvement. 

Newcomers ages 50-65 have a terrible time when their refugee cash assistance runs out in eight months, Jasim said. "They can't work because of their poor health and mental issues, don't speak English, don't know how to get help, and when the system tries to force them to work they get more traumatized."

"There are several widows here, including one who fled to Syria with her two small children and just the clothes on her back, "no money, no nothing," Ibrahim said. "She had to beg people for a place to live and food for her children. 

They spent several years in Syria without any legal rights before coming here." One of the refugees said she and her children were beaten and robbed, and are wracked with depression, shock and fear, "easily startled by loud, sudden noises." 

Another described how her son was brought home early one morning, beaten and injured. "These stories were common, reflecting both emotional and physical reactions of being in a war zone," the report concluded. 

Delphine Brody of the California Network of Mental Health Clients said that Sacramento County doesn't have a program for victims of war and torture. The closest is the Asian Americans for Community Involvement in San Jose, (408) 975-2730, extension 247. 

"These refugees are in great need of trauma-sensitive, culturally and linguistically appropriate mental health," Brody said. "It's a humanitarian crisis that deserves the very best response that Sacramento County can give. 

These people were caught in the crossfire of the U.S. invasion and the subsequent conflicts that broke out. They lost their jobs, homes, belongings, family members and pretty much have to start with nothing." 

By Stephen Magagnini. You can e-mail the author on smagagnini@sacbee.com

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