Syrian Kurdish painter on coping with traumatic memories

By Zoe Todd, CBC News Posted: Nov 08, 2015 5:00 AM

“If I don’t feel happy, I can’t paint.”

In the past four years, Hasan Abdalla has painted less and less. Instead, he keeps his canvases rolled up and stacked in a closet in his apartment in London.

Abdalla, a Syrian Kurdish painter, applied for asylum in the U.K. four years ago.

He’s one of tens of thousands of refugees recently arrived in Europe, and now arriving in growing numbers. He’s also one of the many struggling to cope with what he has lived through.

It took almost a year for his claim to be accepted, but he was granted five years of humanitarian protection that allows him to live and work in the U.K. He’s settling into a new apartment with his wife and youngest son after a string of temporary housing.

Three days after the family moved in, there are still boxes on the floor. Abdalla’s wife has unpacked two patterned cups and a small bag of Syrian coffee from home. A soccer match broadcast by Al-Jazeera plays quietly in Arabic on the TV.

In Syria, Abdalla sold his abstract and expressionist work for as much as $5,000, but in London he says he’s lucky to get a quarter of that price at outdoor markets. “I used to be productive and I thought that nothing is difficult for me to paint – whatever I want, I could paint,” Abdalla said.

But then he hears about another friend or family member killed in Syria. “I live that anxiety – that worry. If you are worried and anxious, you can’t paint.”

Abdalla’s anxieties are not unusual among the refugees now flooding into Europe, a 2015 study suggests.

The German Chamber of Psychotherapists has released numbers suggesting half of the refugees in Germany are traumatized by their experiences. Most commonly, they suffer from post-traumatic-stress disorder or depression – often both.

Of those diagnosed with PTSD, 40 per cent have made plans to take their own lives. Only four per cent get psychotherapy. There are no statistics about the number of refugees who have committed suicide.

Psychotherapy is vital

Doctors who conducted the study say psychotherapy is a crucially important treatment. They warn medication isn’t enough to overcome PTSD and its symptoms, which include panic attacks, heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, dizziness, and flashbacks.

For most, the flashbacks are scenes of what made them flee. More than half of the adult refugees surveyed for the German study witnessed or experienced violence. A quarter of the children surveyed have seen dead bodies.

Abdalla knows all of those things. Syrian police arrested him at an airport in 2010 as he returned from an art exhibition in Sweden. They confiscated his passport, then imprisoned and tortured him for days. Abdalla can’t remember exactly how many.

After his release, Abdalla joined the Syrian uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. He recalls meeting with friends to protest with hundreds of people in the streets of Damascus.

Read more here. (Original posted on the CBC)