When Imad Elabdala came to Sweden fleeing persecution in his home country, he expected to jump into a new life drawing on his training and experience as an engineer in Syria. But in the safety of his new country, the mental distress he had suffered during the war in Syria caught up with him and he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Suffering from PTSD was harder than experiencing the war itself,” said the 36-year-old engineer, speaking of the conflict that began 10 years ago. “I used to underestimate mental health issues. What I’ve learned from dealing with PTSD is that your mental health is key to everything.”
People with PTSD can often relive traumatic experiences through nightmares and involuntary flashbacks that can significantly disrupt everyday life.
Imad began studying psychology to aid his recovery. Soon thereafter, he began a quest to explore what he could do to help fellow young refugees, especially children, whose mental health also had suffered as a result of their experiences. The answer he came up with is the organization Hero2B.
Set up in 2016, the non-profit organization works to make a positive impact on the mental health and wellbeing of society’s most vulnerable children.
Under the slogan, ‘every child deserves to feel like a hero, not a victim,’ it brings together storytelling, psychology and technology into innovative tools that are specially developed to engage children in learning how to overcome their challenges and build a healthy outlook.
“This is where the power of stories comes in. Suddenly we are not advisers, we are friends.'
A book, Sarah’s Journey, ideveloped by Imad, together with children and psychologists, tells the story of a young refugee girl who overcomes challenges on her journey to safety. Prior to the pandemic, Imad and an educator from Hero2B would visit classes to run sessions exploring themes such as empathy and empowerment.
“This is where the power of stories comes in. Suddenly we are not advisers, we are friends,” Imad says.
The method transformed Yara’s* life. The seven-year-old came to Sweden from Syria with her parents in 2015.
Following their arrival by sea in Europe, Yara developed a fear of water and, once in Sweden, started to skip swimming lessons at school.
In addition, Yara was ashamed of her background as a refugee, something that had an inhibiting effect on her development, Yara’s mother, Amina*, explained.
“We were so happy to reach safety,” said Amina. "But our experience changed when we started living with the uncertainty of what the future will hold, and the effects of our experiences in the war and journey began to surface.”
Hero2B’s storytelling methods helped Yara gradually come to terms with the traumatic experiences she had been exposed to and how to deal with them. She was struck by the strength of the main character in Sarah’s Journey because she could communicate with natural elements.
'She had a role model who looked like her'
“Yara looks up to Sarah and started to tell friends at school that she had a role model who looked like her and was also a refugee,” Amina said. The fictional Sarah helped Yara face her fear of water, and she started attending swimming lessons.
“The organization’s books and films really helped Yara develop her self-esteem,” Amina said.
When the pandemic began, Imad was forced to adapt. Not being able to work in schools could have been a setback but he set up a pilot project that used social media, films and online learning tools to engage with children and families. Role models remain central but Imad said now families can discuss issues of inclusion in their new society at home.
The focus on mental health and switch to online methods attracted the attention of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, which established an annual Innovation Award in 2018 to encourage innovation among NGOs working with refugees. In December, the organization gave the award to Hero2B, which comes with a US$15,000 prize. Imad will use the prize money to develop his organization further.
“Hero2B’s focus on mental health and psychosocial support is considered particularly important at a time when uncertainty, isolation, and anxiety is severely affecting refugee communities … particularly children,” according to the award citation.
These days, Imad devotes himself to Hero2B full time and plans for it to become a global provider of digital psychosocial support tools.
* Names changed for protection reasons.