Throughout this book, you will read in parts the story of two siblings: Isra’ and Ahmad. You will follow them as they grow up, as they live through violence and conflict, and as they are forced to leave their home and make sense of a life they neither chose nor expected.

For millennia, humans have learned through story. Stories reflect the truths we are sometimes scared to confront in ourselves and our societies. Stories help us access parts of ourselves and convey feelings, sentiments, and thoughts that would otherwise remain hidden. 

Hopefully, you will learn from Isra’ and Ahmad’s story, and we will use their story as a way to learn about the brain, the body, and the effects of conflict and migration. 

From the very beginning of their story, it is clear that Isra’ and Ahmad are tough. They are strong. Despite their circumstances, Isra’ and Ahmad carry inside themselves so much of what they need to survive and to thrive. All of us carry inside ourselves the ability to survive, grow, and overcome life’s pains and trials. 

Isra’ and Ahmad’s story started long before the conflict. It is important that we explore who they were, how they were, and the myriad challenges that have nothing to do with conflict, trauma, or migration, because the war did not define them. 

The war did not control them, though it did change them. Their sense of self from before the war is very much intact and living. The war never took from them their core being. It never took their soul—though at times in the chaos and conflict they could barely recognize themselves. 

As you read about Isra’ and Ahmad, you will see that both of them are more than the sum of their experiences. They are more than what the conflict did to them and their communities. Their beginning and their still unknown end are not defined by what they lived through for seven years, and the journey of their lives will bring many new experiences of joy, of hope, and of growth.  

Their story is unique, but it is not uncommon. Isra’ and Ahmad’s story may be similar to the stories of many you know. They may be like you in some ways, or like your sister, brother, friend, or colleague. So, as you read their story, you may feel in your body a tightness, or heat flowing through you, or perhaps cold. Perhaps you recognize yourself in these characters. Perhaps you will nod your head or breathe heavily as you read their internal thoughts.

It is our hope that as you read their story and think of your own story, you will learn about yourself in some way. You are the expert in your story, and stories like Isra’ and Ahmad’s are here to help us think together about conflict, about migration, about our minds, bodies, and hearts. 

You did not choose all the parts of your story, or the order of its events. You did not choose all of the experiences, challenges, or wounds that have made you who you are. But, despite what has happened to your or those you know, it is possible to learn from your own story, from the stories of those you love, and from those you do not even know. 

As you read about Isra’ and Ahmad, I’m sure you will have questions like:

  • Why did she react that way? I didn’t do that…
  • Why did he leave? 
  • Why did he not talk to his family? 
  • Why is she so anxious? 

Your questions are good. Your questions are important, and hopefully they will be answered as you go through the book. 

As we read about Isra’ and Ahmad, it will become clear that they face tremendous disruption, adversity, and challenges. Many of their experiences are too common for too many people in the world. Importantly, it is important to always keep in mind that just as Isra’ and Ahmad have suffered, they are surviving and growing. They carry inside themselves the power to survive, to overcome, and to thrive in the face of obstacles. You also have that power, and are likely using it every day already. 

In general, when we talk about mental health and psychological well-being, we are not suggesting that all people who live through war are unwell or “sick.” Every individual reacts uniquely to life’s experiences. Two people, even in the same family, will react uniquely to the same event. One may seem fine, and the other may be forever changed. Those individual differences are influenced by many factors, from our genetic make-up to our personalities. We will delve into some of the reasons behind this later in the book. Ultimately, we cannot judge or even know, for sure, why a person reacts a certain way. All we can do is meet them where they currently are, and share what resources we have.

While those who survive life’s terrible events are not “sick,” we cannot deny the deep effects of traumatic events. Everyone who has suffered can use and benefit from support. Everyone can benefit from learning more about themselves, the mind’s and body’s reaction to the world around them.

Isra’ and Ahmad could have benefited tremendously from a doctor’s or psychologist’s help as they struggled through pain and loss. The support of loved ones is also critical in difficult times. Learning about ourselves and our past can also assist in coping with stress and tragedy. Professional help may also be important in that journey. 

Whatever resources are available, remember that humans are extremely resilient. And more than that, remember that we can use specific strategies to better control how we respond to threats, challenges, and stress. We will discuss some of those strategies in detail.

We already know how to cope. How to survive. And with specific knowledge and skills, we can train ourselves to better manage the pain of the past. We can create new pathways of hope. We can literally change the wiring in our brains to undo and overcome the damage that tragedy, hurt, and adversity may have caused.

As we start this journey, let us first meet Isra’ and her family.