It’s already hot and humid on the morning a school bus full of Iraqi refugees arrives at the Magic Gardens. As the passengers step down from the bus, they’re greeted by volunteers with Philadelphia’s Refugee Mental Health Collaborative.
The visitors to the colorful South Philadelphia landmark are sadly familiar with the escalating violence in Iraq. They are among the small community of about 900 Iraqi refugees who have settled in the city since 2007.
The collaborative’s women’s groups hold meetings and outings — like this one — in an effort to provide support and build connections with refugee communities often reluctant to enter formal mental health treatment.
“Unlike a lot of the other communities we’re serving right now,” says the collaborative’s Melissa Fogg, the Iraqis, “have really recent, very severe trauma and traumatic things happening. Their families are still missing in a lot of cases. One of our interpreters’ brother is kidnapped and missing still to this day.”
The colorful row-house and adjoining courtyard of the Magic Gardens on South Street are covered in ceramic and mirrored tiles, bottles, and bicycle parts, the work of Philadelphia artist Isaiah Zagar.
Nadlaa Essa, who’s almost eight months pregnant with her fifth child, stands in a shady corner of the courtyard, talking with Fogg and volunteer Marty Mollenhauer.
Essa, who is from Basra, also has family in the city of Mosul. The city’s seizure by militants from ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) earlier this month precipitated the current crisis in Fallujah and in Baghdad.
The whole country, she says, “it’s fire now.”
Listening to Essa open up about her anxiety over being safe in the U.S while so many of her relatives are in danger in the splintering country is one aim of program, says Fogg.
“Defining mental health in a nonclinical setting is always something we struggle with with our program in general,” she says, so the outings are designed to refugees a chance to talk about their experiences.
Essa has been able to communicate with her family only intermittently during the past several weeks. She says the Iraqi government has shut down websites like Facebook. But she has managed to reach her brother on the phone.
“Sometimes I feel it is not OK that I am here, my mother, my brother, my sister in Iraq. Very sad,” she says. “I can’t do anything to help him to come to America or another country. I can’t do anything. I say ‘God help him.'”
A professional photographer in Iraq, Essa left all of her equipment in Syria, where she lived in a refugee camp before coming to the United States.
Fogg notes that the loss of a career can itself be traumatic for many of the women.
Refugees, she says, make the same rationalizations an American will make about not going to therapy — that don’t “have the time in their schedule. They have kids. They have families. They have a job.”
Then, she says, the refugees “don’t feel like the care they get would be adequate given the language barrier.”
Talking to a friend is easier, and if the women want to connect to more services, Fogg says, it’s easier to ask a friend for help.