Images of trauma still haunt Pakistani refugee in NC

Images of trauma still haunt Pakistani refugee in NC

By Nadia Batool Bokhari

Durham resident Kamil Arzish, 25, was born and raised in Quetta, Pakistan, and still struggles with the memory of a bomb blast that killed 115 Hazara Shias and wounded more than 270 the year before he moved to this country.

He was 16 and still grieves for his community that was targeted just 10 days into 2013.

The next year, when he was 17 years old, he came to the United States because of the horror.

The Hazara minority, a population that stretches across Pakistan and Afghanistan, are Shia Muslims and have different cultural practices, distinct from many of the Sunni communities in both countries. The facial features of the Hazaras reflect their ancestry of people from Mongolia and Central Asia, something that makes them readily distinguishable from other Afghans, who look more European.  

There wasn’t just one bomb blast in 2013. Slightly more than a month later, on Feb. 13, another deadly blast left 73 Shia Hazra dead, and at least 180 people wounded. On June 30 that same year another suicide attack targeted Hazaras, leaving 33 dead and at least 70 wounded. 

This chain of attacks continues in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  

“How can I forget [a] bomb blast, target-killing in broad daylight in the city and city center,” Arzish said. “All because we look a certain way and belong to the Shia sect. It was just an awful experience, it was hopeless and helpless in Pakistan.”

When Arzish moved to the United States seven years ago, he was granted asylum. 

Now he works at an insurance company in Durham. He said he feels secure in North Carolina, but cannot escape the pain of targeted killings of the Hazara Shia going on in Afghanistan. There has been a non-stop series of ethnic-cleansing attacks, getting worse and worse in Afghanistan, more so than in Pakistan.

Arzish said he hopes to direct the world’s attention to the plight of his Hazara community in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he believes the killing needs to stop.

“I grew up … listening [to] our tribe story that we came as refugees in Balochistan [present Pakistan] from Afghanistan to avoid our community genocide, but since [the] last two decades in Pakistan my community is always in fear of persecution,” Arzish said during interviews conducted in English and Urdu. 

Arzish has found communities in New York, where he lived after arriving, and in North Carolina that are very supportive and welcoming to him. Nonetheless, Arzish still suffers from post-traumatic stress. 

His employer has helped him with the problem by providing him with insurance that has connected him with medical care and mental care. He also got mental counseling at his high school and college. He has high praise for the help that he received there. 

But Arzish also said that he’s not certain that people in this country, who haven’t experienced what he did in Pakistan, might not be able to fathom the stress and mental health problems that come with fleeing such trauma. 

A photo from a February 2013 protest held by the Hazara Shia community in Quetta, Pakistan in the wake of several horrific bombing that killed dozens. The residents were protesting the Pakistani government’s slow response to the attack and the government’s lack of response to attacks from armed Sunni groups. In the wake of the attack, ambulances and fire services were slow to arrive. The local Hazara community said that was because the Pakistani government was discriminating against helping them. Photo credit: Daniel Schmidt, ABC Open/ Flickr Creative Commons

In North Carolina, as refugees from Afghanistan begin to resettle here, Arzish questions whether there could be a better support system for the new arrivals who might have experienced similar trauma.

There are few non-profits providing counseling services specially tailored for refugees. They are arriving in a state where mental health services already are difficult to access, disjointed and underfunded. Longtime residents also know the challenges, all too well. 

PTSD common for refugees

“Many refugees who are resettled have typically endured three distinct chronological periods of traumatic exposure,” said Erum Agha, a postdoctoral research fellow at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine.

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