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Anan Tello,
Diagnosed with Syria 


Anan Tello,
Diagnosed with Syria 

“Diagnosed with Syria” is a short play based on my personal experience as a foreigner/refugee in Leeds, West Yorkshire. The dialogue is between a Syrian refugee and a hypothetical British doctor (GP). She gets diagnosed on the basis of her country’s situation, which further frustrates her. She feels that her needs are deemed unimportant, so she rebels against the GP by vehemently taking the time she deserves despite that she feels rushed. She wants to be asked properly about her ailment even if the diagnosis and prescription will not be affected. She wants to be seen as a ‘person’ – worthy of a proper healthcare experience.

The play explores the impact of biases and stereotypes on refugees’ access to fair healthcare services. The GP takes a decision as soon as he finds out that the character is from Syria, which leads him to unintentionally infantilize her and dismiss her problem. The situation, of course, is amplified by her gender (female). She displays signs of panic disorder and is unapologetic about sharing information that seems irrelevant and disconnected. She randomly picks from her accumulated wounds and ‘hurls’ it at the GP. Part of her wants to speak up and be heard while the other part is convinced whatever she says would not make any difference, and that is why her thoughts seem disconnected at times.

While the GP’s diagnosis is correct, the basis of it is a bias. His ignorance of the experience of Syrian refugees in the UK leads to instantly diagnosing the Syrian character with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when the real reason behind it are displacement and the hostility of the local community, and this means that the remedy would not simply be medication, but a series of treatments that include talk therapy to establish coping mechanisms – a more effective, long-term cure.

As the SELMA project seeks to influence policy-makers in the British healthcare system, it was important that the play directly speaks to healthcare professionals and highlights the impact of bias as well as displacement on a refugee’s health. This could be amplified by prior experience of war and violence in a refugee’s home country. A 2020 research by Monica Luci, published in the Journal of Analytical Psychology, suggests that the experience of refuge causes “a displacement of the central axis of Self, in which the ego complex yields its position to other complexes, with a deep change in the organization and functioning of self.” This is often dismissed by GPs when treating refugees, and their mental health problems are often blamed on their experience of war in their home countries.

The two workshops held by UCL Researcher Imogen Bakelmun (in July and September 2021) have largely contributed to the direction this play has taken.

We discussed gender and its role in the displacement experience, and this was quite eye-opening as our genders impact how we experience the world around us and how we are received by the healthcare system, which often tends to dismiss women’s pain. The Syrian character is female while the GP is male, and this adds to his inability to empathize with her.

    Women are often seen as ‘emotional,’ ‘hormonal,’ or even ‘hysterical’ – but these expressions are often replaced with modern implications.


During the first workshop, I listened to the experiences of other participants, which helped me understand that the experience of being dismissed or treated unfairly by the healthcare system is not inherent to Syrian refugees in the UK. First- and second-generation immigrants from different parts of the world are also complaining of similar experiences of infantilization and being deprived of equitable healthcare.

The discussion evoked the need to give the Syrian character her rebellious nature and focus on her refusal to succumb to her mental illness. She had to be rounded and not one-dimensional. Each participant in the workshops spoke about who they are, and that they are a lot more than their immigration/ displacement experience. Usually, the British healthcare system sees refugees as one cluster of people displaced from their war-torn country. We are often seen as ignorant and unsophisticated, and our life experiences, intelligence and characters are overlooked. Refugees are also often seen as broken, fragile people because the GP is, ironically, only seeing us from a British perspective, assuming that a mental breakdown, for instance, would leave us wanting to give up on life. This also sheds light on how the healthcare system is not inclusive and does not seek to cater to the needs of non-British patients.

A word on process

I have found writing this play both cathartic and enriching, and attending the workshops helped me develop an understanding of how gender impacts the experience of refugees as well as their access to proper healthcare services. I would have wanted the play to be slightly longer and to include another character, the GP, which can be done in an extended version. The exercises in the first workshop released my imagination, and I immediately knew what I wanted to write about, while the second workshop allowed me to get feedback from other participants, and I kept their input in mind as I edited the play.