Syrian refugees share stories of suffering with Canadian Centre for the Victims of Torture

Metro Morning spoke with Debra Stein, a psychiatrist at the Canadian Centre for the Victims of Torture, about how refugees are coping.

Centre gives refugees a safe space to address 'shame, humiliation, guilt, horror.'

Mohamad Sarkbi, a former restaurant owner and member of the Free Syrian Army, shared his story of torture, imprisonment, and betrayal with CBC News at a café. He did not want his face shown. (Yasmine Hassan/CBC)

A psychiatrist with the Canadian Centre for the Victims of Torture said reports of suffering from refugees are "a pretty familiar story" on CBC's Metro Morning Tuesday, after hearing how one Syrian refugee was arrested and abused.

Mohamad Sarkbi, a government-sponsored refugee who landed with his wife and children at Pearson International Airport just a few months ago, recently told the CBC's Yasmine Hassan of his imprisonment and torture merely for helping families who had nothing to eat. 

He described how his captors would laugh as they prepared to electrocute him.

"I lost consciousness right away," he said. "I woke up in my cell and was told I was electrocuted for seven hours."

A familiar story

Psychiatrist Debra Stein has been with the centre for over 20 years, and provides a safe space for refugees to talk about their past.

Stein says she and her colleagues hear many stories like Sarkbi's, as refugees escape from prisons, from persecution and from oppressive regimes.

Even for those who escaped without torture, there are still terrible memories of refugee camps and the trauma from migration.

Although Stein says some people don't benefit from sharing their story, others do need to talk through their emotions.

"It's really important to hear a story and listen without judgement, to validate what happened, and to also explore and address the feelings and thoughts that went with the experience, and to address feelings like shame, humiliation, guilt, horror," Stein said.

"It can be very, very helpful to have someone sit and listen and say, 'This happened to you, this was wrong, and you know, you're okay now. You're safe now.'"

Many Syrian refugees have fled torture, one psychiatrist who has heard many of those stories from around the world explained how to respond and why it matters. Matt Galloway spoke with Debra Stein, she teaches psychiatry at the University of Toronto.

'Very silent thing'

The centre has seen 81 Syrian refugees since December; according to executive director Mulugeta Abai, who was tortured himself before coming to Canada as a refugee.

The centre expected to hear from a lot more, but many refugees may still be in a state of euphoria, Abai said, celebrating the fact they've arrived in a new place. 

Others may just need to find a space to speak freely after a horrific experience, said Stein.

"Someone who's tortured gets released into the community completely broken as a warning and a message to others that, you know, any dissent won't be tolerated,"  she said.

"There's a lot of fear that builds up and people don't talk about it, and then it becomes this very silent thing."