Content warning: Contains reference to trauma and potentially traumatising experiences.
PS: I have made this episode of Raw, my monthly audio series, freely available to everyone because it tackles a subject of urgent humanitarian interest. Please consider becoming a paying subscriber if you aren't one already. As an independent creator, I depend on your support for my livelihood and to keep this platform alive. Thank you.
PPS: I am sorry about the slightly scratchy audio quality in this episode. I didn't record this conversation with the intention of turning it into a podcast, but Joseph El-Khoury's insights were too rich to be a condensed into an article of a few hundred words. Please listen with headphones; link to the full episode and complete transcript is at the bottom of this page.
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The psychiatrist who lived war
Joseph El-Khoury grew up in Lebanon at the height of the Civil War in that country from the mid-70s to 1990, which killed over 100,000 people. With firsthand experience of war trauma, he decided to become a psychiatrist, studied and worked in the west and returned to his country to help his people. He trained himself in conflict medicine, and worked with refugees from neighbouring Syria who fled the Syrian war. But then, last year, he had to leave his home country again in the wake of a severe political and economic collapse.
"I spent 14 years of my life outside Lebanon," he recently tweeted. "I returned to settle in my home country, build a family and a career. I’m not ‘lucky’ that I got to leave again. At this stage we are in exile, not expats."
As someone who understands what it means to live in a troubled country, Joseph El-Khoury has powerful perspectives on the flawed assumptions people from the outside looking in tend to make about the words 'conflict' and 'war'.
When the tragedy in Afghanistan unfolded, I reached out to El-Khoury, who is a fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK and president elect of the Lebanese Psychiatric Society, to understand what constant conflict does to the human mind, the possibility of hope, and what the rest of the world can do to help heal the wounds of war. Here's a memorable lesson he shared:
So even in Afghanistan, people leaving Afghanistan now on one of these horrendous flights and ending up in let's say, New Delhi. Probably they want to talk about Afghanistan, about their experience, but they also want to be treated as individuals with individual needs, okay? And that tends to be forgotten. So if I can't talk to you about Afghanistan, I can't talk to you about anything else.