British Columbia

Surrey program tackles 'huge gaps' in support for Syrian refugee mental health

An innovative program in Surrey brings together Syrian refugee families to address the trauma of their past.

Advocates say long-term counselling services for Syrian refugees are sorely lacking

Syrian refugee Mohamad Alorfi, along with workers at Diversecity's group counselling sessions in Surrey. (Catherine Rolfsen)

When Syrian refugee Mohamad Alorfi fled to Jordan, he lived under the constant threat of being caught working illegally by police.

"Just because you saw a policeman, you have to run away, because they always raise us on fear," the father of seven explains through an interpreter. 

Which is why the mere sight of a police station in his new home of Surrey left him struggling to breathe. 

That is, until Alorfi learned a deep breathing technique at an innovative new program in Surrey to help Syrian refugees cope with past trauma.

"When I remember the past, I use this method," he said, demonstrating by taking a long, slow inhale. "I do this trick to get over it." 

Alorfi and his family are among about 20 Syrian refugees participating in a five-week group session that deals with settlement issues "through a trauma lens," according to Corina Carroll, the manager of counselling services at Diversecity Community Resources Society. 

The program is funded by the United Way, and is a first step in alleviating what Carroll describes as a "huge gap" in serving Syrian refugees' mental health needs. 

'A real policy problem' 

ISSofBC says that most Syrian refugees will be able to cope with their trauma without major interventions, and there's no reason to believe that Alorfi and his family aren't in that category. 

But advocates and settlement workers say there is inadequate federal and provincial funding to ensure refugees who need it, get ongoing mental health support. 

"We have a real policy problem in this country when it comes to refugee mental health," said Dylan Mazur, the executive director of the Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture. 

Syrian refugees got a warm welcome when they arrived in Canada, including from political leaders such as Immigration Minister John McCallum, above, some are finding it hard to get by on the government funding they receive, which is about equivalent to social assistance. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press) (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

When government-assisted Syrian refugees arrive in B.C., they have a wellness orientation through ISSofBC with a settlement crisis support worker like Margot Sangster. 

"It's one thing to provide support in the moment on a short-term basis or a crisis basis," Sangster said.

"But there is no funding in place, either by the province or the federal government, to provide that more ongoing long-term counselling that some people will benefit from." 

The federal government does provide some funding for refugees to access a psychologist under the Interim Federal Health Program, but Mayzur says the application process is so onerous that only a handful of people are using it. 

B.C. Ministry of Health spokeswoman Kristy Anderson says that "mental health supports and trauma counselling are one of our main areas of focus," pointing to recent funding aimed mainly at supporting those who work with refugees. 

But advocates worry that Syrian refugees will not get adequate support when it's needed. 

"For that population that needs acute intervention, the danger can be suicide, can be long-term trauma," said Mayzur. 

A different approach to mental health

Carroll says another barrier to refugees accessing psychological support is a different understanding of mental health and trauma. 

Syrian refugee Mohamad Alorfi demonstrates a deep breathing technique he learned at group counselling sessions in Surrey. (Catherine Rolfsen )

"When you talk to people who come from countries where mental health isn't considered something positive — mental health can be considered mental illness only, psychiatric illness only, ostracization from their communities, hospitalization against their will — we have to be very careful about how we use the word trauma." 

That's why the Diversecity program is offered in an informal setting, using Arabic interpreters and within the context of settlement support. 

Children are welcome and have their own separate sessions. 

For his part, Alorfi says there was no such thing as counselling in Syria and Jordan. 

When it comes to dealing with his trauma, his main focus is on forgetting what he calls "the black history" of the Syrian civil war. 

"We are humans, and something that God has created in us is that we can forget," he said. "We try to forget what happened." 


Catherine Rolfsen

'Finding Refuge' story producer

Catherine Rolfsen is a story producer with The Early Edition at CBC Radio Vancouver, currently following stories of Syrian refugees in B.C. Catherine's work has been recognized with regional and national awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association. Reach her at or @crolfsen