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When her family was refused permanent asylum in Sweden, eight-year-old Nola fell into a deep sleep. More than two years later, she still hasn’t woken up, writes Alice Robb in the New Statesman. Nola (not her real name) suffers from “resignation syndrome”, a mystery illness that has afflicted hundreds of refugee children facing deportation in Sweden over the past 20 years. It is the subject of neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan’s new book, The Sleeping Beauties.
The sick children lie unresponsive “for days, weeks, even years”, and are kept alive through feeding tubes. If propped up, “they fell back, limp, like rag dolls”. Their illness is psychosomatic, not physical, brought on by severe trauma. When granted residency, the children often slowly start to wake up.
The prospect of deportation was terrible for Nola. She had grown up mostly in Sweden, where her family had temporary residency, and had many friends there. In Syria her family had been persecuted as members of the Yazidi minority. Her mother was sent death threats after being assaulted by four men.
Yet “there are traumatised children all over the world”, so why is this sleeping sickness limited to Sweden? O’Sullivan believes the children’s awareness that others like them were falling into an impenetrable sleep meant “their brains were primed to manifest apathy when faced with a particular trigger”. It’s a powerful illustration of “the impact of culture and community on illness and the brain”, which is often ignored in western medicine.