TORONTO â€” Maha Alio’s heart sank when she learned the United States had bombed a Syrian air base in retaliation for the horrific gas attack that stunned the world.
“I’m sure bad things will happen now,” the 25-year-old said Friday morning as speculation swirled over what’s next.
As global tensions mounted over the surprise U.S. air strike, the recent immigrant said she was more fearful than ever for the safety of friends and family back home.
“We don’t trust what America did and what America will do because after six years we don’t trust anyone,” said Alio, who arrived in January with her 63-year-old mother.
“Now our (fear) is the people, again. We feel like this bomb will impact on the people more than anybody else.”
The missile attack undoubtedly increased pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad, but Alio questioned whether that signalled any progress in her country’s protracted six-year-old civil war.
“We don’t know if it’s a positive thing or negative. We don’t know what will happen. We are afraid now because it’s always just about the children and people.”
Anxiety has been especially high for Alio and her friends since Tuesday’s horrific chemical attack, which is believed to have killed more than 80 people, many of them children.
Victims showed signs of nerve gas exposure, including suffocation, foaming at the mouth, convulsions, constricted pupils and involuntary defecation, according to the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders.
Alio’s father remained in Latakia, Syria â€” which she characterized as being relatively safe â€” to care for his ailing mother, who has since died. Meanwhile, Alio’s sister and nephew are in Antakya, Turkey.
She hopes to bring them all to Toronto soon but feels guilty for being safe away from home. Still, she was stunned to hear one of her friends say earlier this week that he wants to return.
“I said, ‘No, you will die in Syria,'” said Alio.
“He told me, ‘Yes. OK. Why I am I here? I want to go back, to die with them. Why them, not me? Not you? Not us?'”
Settlement workers here are struggling with how to help refugees manage their anxiety and fears as they try to build a new life.
Reports of turmoil back home can deepen the pain of past trauma, and even erase hard-won gains in their education or career plans, said Sally Ghazal, a crisis intervention counsellor with Catholic Crosscultural Services in Mississauga, Ont.
“They’re sitting in class and trying to focus and then they get a message or they get an image and it takes them back. And it takes a long time for them to recover,” said Ghazal.
“One of my clients said it perfectly, he said, ‘I feel like I’m paralysed, I cannot move. I am stuck where I am and no matter how much I try to learn, (I cannot).’ And not just (him) obviously, the majority of them feel that way.”
She said many are frustrated by difficulties learning English. Even after a year of study, some struggle to speak at all.
“Trauma itself has a lot of effects including not being able to focus and concentrate, forgetting, not being able to remember basic things that are happening day-to-day, and you see that with them,” Ghazal said.
It’s especially tough when others depend on their success, she added, recalling one client who came to Canada with six children.
“He has an elderly mother back in Syria and she keeps calling him and saying: ‘Why didn’t you bring me with you to Canada? Why can’t you fix it so I can come?’ And he’s torn and he feels so guilty about it.”
Alio gets her news from Facebook and other immigrant friends who pass along first-hand accounts from those still in Syria.
The reports are far more graphic than what’s permitted in traditional Canadian media, but Alio said she wants to bear witness to a tragedy she was spared from by mere fortune.
“As a newcomer in Canada (we feel) far away from them so we want to know more, to feel like we are close somehow,” explained Alio.
“I prefer to know about the details…. We want to help also, so to do all of this we have to understand. We have to understand.”
Gilan Abdelaal, a clinical counsellor with COSTI Immigrant Services in north Toronto, said many of her clients are so inured by tragedy that the gas attack came as little surprise.
She said constant exposure to upsetting reports can exacerbate symptoms of depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. This can heighten fear and weaken faith in their future.
“It keeps them dwelling on the issues that they witnessed and what they survived and what they have to deal with,” she said. “Obviously, that affects their mental health and their well-being.”
Abdelaal often has to reassure clients that discussing their feelings can help.
“Culturally, it’s very new and they’re adapting â€” but so many are open to talking and sharing and I’m learning from them.”
The stress of worrying in Canada in no way compares to living in turmoil back home, said Alio, but her friends here “are also in a very bad situation.”
This week, she decided to seek out a psychologist.
“I have one friend, she was crying (Wednesday) all day,” she sighed.
“She stayed at home still crying and I don’t know what I can do for her, or for me, or for those children (in Syria). I don’t know.”
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press