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Many refugees coming to central Alberta need more trauma care: expert

After Martha Cortes's father was murdered in his native Colombia for not allowing cocaine to be grown in his fields, paramilitary terrorists turned their attention to her and her husband.
Martha Cortes (centre) tells her refugee story on Monday during a World Refugee Days event at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery. (By LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).

After Martha Cortes's father was murdered in his native Colombia for not allowing cocaine to be grown in his fields, the terrorists kidnapped her and her husband.

Cortes, now a Red Deer citizen, spoke at a World Refugee Day event at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery on Monday about the life-altering trauma she experienced before arriving in Canada in 2000.

She still has scars on her scalp from being slammed with gun butts for fighting the kidnappers' sexual demands. Cortes recalled being held for nine days while her husband endured 31 days of torture that left him bloody and burnt.

The two finally gained their freedom, in part, because a relative had surrendered himself to obtain their release.

They ran between government departments trying to muster help or justice. A sympathetic official finally told them — in writing, because his office was bugged —  that they needed to stop talking as they were only making themselves bigger targets.

At that point, Cortes said she knew the only recourse was to leave. She and her husband applied for asylum at the Canadian Embassy in Bogota. After Canadian officials verified that their lives were really in danger, passports were hastily created. Two days later, the couple found themselves on a plane to Calgary, then a car ride to Red Deer.

Soon they landed their first jobs. Cortes, who has a master's degree in education from Colombia, also began helping others who were arriving from South America. In 2022, Cortes's brother, who had sacrificed his freedom for hers, joined them in Canada, along with his wife, daughter and Cortes's five stepchildren.

But it still took a long time for Cortes to feel safe.

"It was very difficult because of the trauma. I didn't feel confident that I wouldn't be betrayed. I didn't want to socialize. I didn't want to make friends," she recalled.

Complex trauma, going beyond PTSD levels, is very common with refugees, said R.J. Riad, clinical director of international operations for the Canadian Institute for Child Development International.

He told an audience at the Red Deer museum that he found this especially so with children who saw their parents get murdered and are now growing up as unaccompanied orphans in refugee camps.

From 2012 to 2020, Riad worked in a United Nations camp in north Jordan that filled up with 120,000 refugees from the civil war in Syria. With more individuals than live in Red Deer, the camp occupied less than five percent of this city's space so density was extremely high. Riad recalled people were living in tents or abandoned vehicles as temperatures rose to 46C, or torrents of rain left the camp awash in a foot of water.

Nearly half of those in the camp (45 per cent) were children. And some of these youngsters would disappear, lured by offerings of candy into the vehicles of sex traffickers. Riad said people who cared would unofficially organize to try to keep watch over all of the unaccompanied children.

But they were exposed to other traumas: "One in three females above the age of 12 were raped at least three times," said Riad.

He would also see "stores" open inside the camps — not to feed hungry kids, but to sell half of the stolen items that had been donated by well meaning charities.

In this vicious environment it's natural for people to become survivors. Without education, guidance, future goals, or social skills, a lot of kids are just driven by staying alive. Riad said brains form differently when children don't have love, security or nurturing.

He wishes the world would stop selling arms that perpetuate wars and use this money to rebuild cities so that people could stay at home. But as that day may never come, he hopes Canadian schools become more familiar with the signs of complex trauma so they can help kids get the help they need to restart their lives.

He noted 87 per cent of the kids he's seen who supposedly have ADHD were misdiagnosed and are actually living with extreme trauma. 

Given a chance, these children can flourish, said Riad. He encourages employers to help train former refugees, as he knows some Syrian former camp kids, who are now in their 20s, have used these skills to start their own construction company.

Another former camp kid is now studying political science at the University of South Carolina. "She will be kicking butt... and that is why we do what we do," said Riad.









Lana Michelin

About the Author: Lana Michelin

Lana Michelin has been a reporter for the Red Deer Advocate since moving to the city in 1991.
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