How refugee fathers cope with conflict trauma and resettling

Adnan Al-Mhamied was once a political dissident living in Syria. After the country collapsed into war, he fled to Montreal with his family and studied towards a master's in social work. His research reveals the 'silent suffering' of men who have escaped conflict zones with their families and resettled in an unfamiliar country.

Syrian refugee PhD student reveals ‘silent suffering’ in his research

Adnan Al-Mhamied at the McGill campus on his first day as a student. (Submitted by Adnan Al-Mhamied)

** Originally published on October 2, 2019.

It took Adnan Al-Mhamied an hour to find the building where his first class at McGill University was taking place. The Syrian refugee had only been in Canada for four days.

Professor Myriam Denov describes her first meeting Al-Mhamied as he sat with his fellow social work students. 

"We had been discussing some of the challenges of working in conflict zones and in walked this fellow. [He] walked in [and] introduced himself. It was very moving. He didn't have much English, and little by little, I realized he had literally come from a conflict zone," said Denov. 

I can't imagine what a surreal experience that would have been for him. He had literally walked through ISIS territory and then come to McGill.- Myriam Denov

Al-Mhamied came to Canada with his wife and four children in October 2014. He vividly remembers the culture shock when beginning his studies.

"People were talking but I couldn't talk because I... didn't have the capacity," said Al-Mhamied.

"So I didn't speak, I didn't talk. I kept silent. Even the way they were looking for the materials and the readings. I didn't know how to do that."

An idyllic family life

Adnan Al-Mhamied and his son Ali enjoying the backyard of their family home in Daraa, Syria. (Submitted by Adnan Al-Mhamied)

A year earlier, Al-Mhamied was working as a mechanical engineer in the city of Daraa, Syria. He, his wife Basmah and their four children lived in a well-to-do neighbourhood. The couple had designed their house themselves.

"When you design a house, you design it as your life house. You have dreams about it. 'This room is for the grandchildren,'" said Al-Mhamied. 

The Syrian revolution in 2011 catalyzed Al-Mhamied's determination to pool whatever resources he had to enact democratic change. He co-founded the "17th of April Movement for Democratic Change," as well as the "Damascus Center for Human Rights."

His increasingly 'dissident' activities made him a target for Bashar Assad's government. Al-Mhamied told IDEAS that the Syrian police killed two of his brothers, and they also arrested him twice.

When the authorities came looking for him a third time, Al-Mhamied fled — the final time he saw his hometown. 

When the... revolution started, I put myself, my resources, everything in my life [into] this revolution because it was, for us, the hope that were waiting for.-Adnan Al-Mhamied

In spite of his exile, he was still able to keep in contact with his wife and children.

"Basmah used to call me every few days and they used to visit me every month or so. I was living a very tough life, moving from place to place, hiding from place to place, and I had to tell Basmah when and how she... could come," said Al-Mhamied. 

Adnan Al-Mhamied and his wife Basmah Issa on their plane journey to Canada. This flight was the first plane Al-Mhamied had ever been on. (Submitted by Adnan Al-Mhamied)

Upon receiving a recommendation from a friend, he was encouraged to apply for a scholarship to McGill University for a master's degree in social work. However, in order to get to Canada, he would first have to cross into Turkey through Syria's northern border.

The border was 1,000 kilometres away. For a third of that distance, Al-Mhamied had to walk to avoid detection. With help from smugglers, after six sleepless days and nights, Al-Mhamied made it to Turkey. He reunited with his family in Istanbul, where they waited for five weeks for a visa that allowed them to fly to Montreal.

Fathers fleeing conflict

Al-Mhamied is now a PhD student, and the trauma that he and many others have experienced guides his research. 

Al-Mhamied's specific experience led him down a research path that isn't well-travelled by scholars in his field. He explores the experience of fathers fleeing from conflict as they resettle far from home. 

"It's actually not very common in social work that people think about fathers," said Jill Hanley, a professor at the School of Social Work at McGill. 

Adnan Al-Mhamied and his family in their home in Montreal. (Tom Howell/CBC)

"Sometimes we can have a perspective on refugees that's only about their vulnerability and their trauma. [Al-Mhamied] was always bringing back men's experience. They're still now fathers in their family and they're struggling to do what they need to do to support their families," Hanley added.

University of Calgary professor David Este has studied the experiences of migrant fathers in Canada for more than 20 years. He notes that, generally, women fare better at integrating than men.

"[Male refugees] are prone to forms of clinical depression at a much higher rate than their female counterparts," said Este.

"So we need programs that address the mental health concerns of these men."

Participants in this episode:

  • Myriam Denov  is a professor at McGill University's Centre for Research on Children and Families. She holds the Canada Research Chair in Youth, Gender and Armed Conflict. She is based in Montreal. 
  • Jill Hanley is an associate professor at McGill University's School of Social Work.
  • Rabiah Fakhiri is the Montreal co-ordinator of SyRIA.lth, a pan-Canadian project to study refugee integration. He is also a Syrian refugee, PhD student, and a father of two kids.
  • David Este is a professor of social work at the University of Calgary. He has led and contributed to numerous studies related to fatherhood and migration.
  • Adell Ghanam is a Syrian refugee and father of four living in Calgary. He and his wife own and operate a Shawarma food truck called Shahba Shawarma.
  • Haideh Moghissi is professor emerita at York University. She has written extensively on feminism, Islamic cultures and migration.

**This episode is part of our series, Ideas from the Trenches, featuring outstanding PhD students. It's presented by Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell.  


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