Salute MentalemigrazionipersoneSalute mentale


By Aliya Salahuddin
27 Mar 2024

I often think about the strength and resolve of the 27 year old Shahida Raza from Pakistan. Raza’s small community of Hazara Shiites is regularly under attack by militants in the country. Over a thousand Hazaras have been killed in the last decade. 

Despite a disadvantaged life with limited means, Shahida followed her dream to eventually participate in national championships in martial arts, football and field hockey. It was an untraditional route growing up in a conservative, poor family.

It was a dream that drowned with Shahida Raza’s body last year in the Mediterranean Sea after a migrant boat wreck near Crotone. She, along with many Pakistanis, Afghans and Iranians, was among the 79 people who died in the treacherous sea crossing. 

Why was Shahida on that boat? As Pakistan mourned her tragic death, we all asked this question, and internally, we knew the answer. Only a migrant ‘pushed out’ of their country for all sorts of reasons can understand that such a dangerous journey is not the preferred choice. Who - without money, connections, work, joy - would depart on a journey with no end?

When Shahida Raza got on the ill fated boat, she had few choices. She was the mother of a small child with congenital medical problems. She wanted to get to Europe, apply for asylum, get a job and then bring her son so he could receive the care he needed. Before she died, she had already endured a painful three month journey through Iran and Turkey, often covering long distances on foot. 

Over 250,000 migrants in the last two years crossed the Mediterranean into Italy and over 20,000 have been swallowed by it in the last decade (IOM). 
Multiple studies have looked at the psychological impact of trauma on migrants. The two segments most vulnerable to high levels of stress are those who a) endure a hostile and humiliating reception process, and b) African migrants who additionally experience deep rooted discrimination. Experts say that providing mental health services does not show much impact in cases where societal discrimination continues outside therapy.

The most common mental struggle for a migrant is to be recognized as an individual. A young Tunisian man lives this regularly. “Being a man, being North African, being Muslim and being Arab, I feel the pressure of dispelling false ideas about young men like me every single day,” he says. 

For most migrants, the trajectory is similar. First, there are needs: cultural assimilation, language, job hunting, community building. Then, there are dreams: finding love, moving up the career ladder, looking for meaning and purpose in life. And the struggles: discrimination, lack of control, misunderstandings, mistakes, bringing up children in different culture and religion, search for roots and identity, and the most painful of all, isolation. 

Both loneliness and ‘aloneness’ travel with us when we are stripped from one continuum of our story and planted in another country to give roots to another one.  As they say in my culture, a migrant is akin to “a kite with a severed string”.

What would be the mental state of a severed kite? 

Take my grandmother. In 1948, she and her four children migrated from her home in India to a new country called Pakistan. She left behind her only sister and a book of stories that somebody had borrowed but hadn’t returned. There was deep grief in leaving a sibling on the far side of a hostile border, but the pain of losing those stories was felt so acutely that we all grew up with broken pieces of those tales told to us over and over again. In the retelling, she struggled to retain the memory of her family, childhood home, of her father reading to her. In a way the story of her own life was buried somewhere with that book. 

She possibly missed what all of us migrants miss: food, smells, the family home, the laughter of friends, the light of the sky, the warmth of the sun, the sounds of one’s language. Whether we are from Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine or Peru, without these, we feel cut off, severed, remote, removed.

What is the mental state of a severed kite that learns to communicate in a new language, but cannot find connection? We know from life and studies that loneliness kills and the key to happiness is “relationships, relationships, relationships”. “A sense of community saves us,” says a Harvard study, “more than fame or wealth.” Maybe this is why many migrants look for their own. They may come looking for a better life and more money but with it, the sadness and pain of separation from loved ones will always exist.

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