Wounded And Uprooted:

Seeking Refuge In The Land Of Others

by Steve Olweean

Common Bond Institute
International Humanistic Psychology Association

In
Refugees and Migrants In Law And Policy:
Challenges and Opportunities for Global Civic Education
Helmut Kury, Sławomir Redo, Editors

 Springer Publishers
2017

A recent assessment by UNHCR indicates the current level of forced migration across the global has reached a height and speed not seen since the end of WW II nearly ¾ of a century ago, and it may soon exceed this. The largest and fastest growing group within this most current mass movement has been Syrian refugees, which now comprise the majority of Syria’s entire population. (UNHCR 2016)

In the early years of this crisis the bulk of refugees were fleeing the violence and turmoil of civil war to neighboring countries of primarily Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, seeking temporary asylum until they could once again return home. As the danger and chaos of civil war and then ISIS have intensified and expanded across the region, and as neighboring sanctuary countries are severely overtaxed by hosting millions of asylum seekers, a new wave of desperate refugees has increasingly sought safe haven in regions far beyond their homeland and culture, including Europe. Now more than 6 years since the start of hostilities in Syria, and after entire communities have been destroyed, for many return is a tenuous and elusive hope at best, or no option at all. As a result, families and individuals are coming to terms with having to make a home in a distant and different country. Along with this latest ordeal come additional unexpected challenges and complications as they struggle to create a new life in an often unfamiliar land, and the communities within these lands likewise strive to receive and include them.

Particularly for those attempting to assist in this crisis situation and host communities, it is helpful to consider certain dynamics of these massive relocations and the shifts in social and cultural relationships they influence. Based on our experience, observations, and conclusions through Common Bond Institute (CBI) over the last 27 years working with societies devastated by war and violence that have produced countless refugees, we have identified certain key factors necessary to take into account with any efforts to ensure successful transitions for both those displaced and communities receiving them.

One factor is whether the multiple aspects of the forced migration experience are acknowledged and addressed, using a whole-person and multi-modal approach, or whether only limited portions of them are. (Krippner 2001).

A second related key factor is whether both the qualitative and quantitative dimensions of the individual and communal experience of profound loss and wounding are attended to. (Olweean, 2001)

Multiple Aspects of the Experience

As a most immediate example of the first factor, the situation for Syrian refugees is one with multiple, interacting elements and layers of loss and change impacting on an individual’s daily life in ways that combine to magnify and intensify the overall power and durability of this experience. Literally overnight an individual’s context for their daily life and known-sense of their place in it can radically and unrecognizably change, with little or no hope of return or regained familiarity. These elements involve both basic and existential needs. Among them can be:

  • being subjected to psychological, emotional, and physical trauma;
  • immediate danger to self and loved ones;
  • persecution and oppression;
  • loss of loved ones;
  • loss of home and worldly possessions;
  • loss of community cohesion, culture, spiritual expression, language, and sense of place in the world, particularly in cultures where communal identity is at least as important as individual identity;
  • loss of individual, family, and social-cultural role and identity;
  • loss of education, occupation, socio-economic means, and self-sufficiency;
  • loss of self-esteem, self-confidence, and personal power;
  • culture shock in a new land;
  • xenophobic and even hostile reactions by some in host communities who feel threatened by newcomers that appear unlike them.

In turn, societies receiving these refugees also face significant change and challenges. Examples of these can be:

  • required local resources to meet the immediate and long term needs of new arrivals;
  • adjusting to the effects of integrating populations from different cultures, languages, and sometimes spiritual belief systems into the local culture while maintaining social cohesion and the established communal identity;
  • adjusting to the desperation and needs of those experiencing acute trauma, loss, and culture shock;
  • a sense of uncertainty and being overwhelmed due to the sudden influx of large numbers of newcomers in immediate need of help, particularly those that appear quite dissimilar.

A successful transition necessarily involves effectively responding to the various elements present for a particular immigrant group and host community. Attending to some while ignoring others can significantly hinder progress and reduce the probability of success. What is most helpful is if the assimilation process is viewed as a mutual learning experience for all parties involved, so that relevant elements are adequately identified and prioritized at the same time that cross-cultural knowledge is imparted. Identifying the various involved elements in this way allows for stakeholders to then productively address them together.

One example might be examining perspectives on traditions of individual and communal identity, and what assimilation and becoming a blended community means for each party. Particularly in the case of Middle Eastern and European communities, identity can be experienced differently depending on the cultural context. Refugees quickly shifting from a Middle Eastern culture-set where communal and family identity is more the frame for individual identity can feel challenged in adapting to a culture where the opposite may be more the case. The same can hold true in reverse for members of Western societies seeking to understand the perspective and behaviors of new arrivals, including their priorities and responses to offers of assistance. The experience of trauma and adjustment to major loss and life changes can further reflect and magnify this difference. (Olweean and Eshowsky 2017). A shared understanding of this difference allows for exploring and co-creating ways these two perspectives might complement each other rather than lead to potential misinterpretations.

As the current crisis has forced many to venture far beyond their home region, differences are increasingly being encountered on both sides of the migration equation. For societies that have each historically been less diverse, with slower and less varied changes to their socio-cultural make-up over time, refugees who are adjusting to starkly new social, cultural, and even geographic environments, as well as local communities who are adjusting to an influx of new and similarly different residents, face exceptional challenges. Such a 2-way peer dialogue process promotes feeling an active part of the community, it’s challenges, and it’s solutions through shared involvement, responsibility, and benefit, rather than imposing an ongoing tiered relationship, As both newcomers and original community members interact and engage mutually in incorporating and blending a newly establishing sense of “we” and “belonging” this can in itself help reduce stress and alleviate difficulties.

Quality of The Experience:

A second key factor affecting the success of a transition has to do with which “type” of needs are attended to – whether both the qualitative and quantitative elements of loss and wounding are adequately treated.

The emotional and psychological toll of multiple major and disrupting life changes can cause substantial drains on the energy, stamina, and internal resources required of a person to adequately adjust to these changes. Being able to first regain and stabilize a person’s original sense of internal balance and security both in an individual and communal sense – better allows for a steadier, more measured acclimation to new conditions in a new environment, and for a more successful and fuller socio-cultural integration within a new community. Re-establishing this familiar sense of “self” within the new cultural setting reduces internal dissonance, frustration, and uncertainty caused by temporary difficulty in fully accessing previously accustomed strengths, skills, and day to day independence due to being constantly immersed in an unfamiliar “otherness” of the surroundings. If successful this encourages a progressive blending of the deep self with the newly forming communal self.

Our experience shows that if this step is not adequately achieved – or is even skipped – it is highly likely that the integration process is at the least significantly inhibited, if not undermined, long term. This is particularly so for first generation immigrants.

When severe psycho-social trauma is present the stress of these life changes is significantly compounded and can become debilitating. Profound trauma can permeate all dimensions of an individual’s reality. Along the way previously secure positive beliefs can be fundamentally shaken, or even shattered, to be replaced by debilitating and damaging negative beliefs and fragmented perceptions of reality that color all aspects of day to day life from that point forward. If overlooked, minimized, and unresolved, trauma can become imbedded and extend not only through an individuals’ life but into future generations where it becomes part of the transgenerational psyche of a community.

On a communal level the trauma process is vastly more complex. Consequently, treating individuals from large civilian populations suffering from catastrophic psychological trauma in all areas of their society poses unique challenges not typically focused on in the therapeutic literature or conventional clinical practice. In societies where human services are seriously underdeveloped or absent, or where the integrity of the existing social support system itself is critically compromised, this challenge can be overwhelming (Olweean, 2001).

Psychological and emotional injuries may be the most enduring effects of war and violence, yet historically they are the least addressed in terms of either individual or communal recovery. (Olweean, 2001). In the current example of Syrian refugees, needs are often viewed through a quantitative lens – with the focus on more visible basics like food, shelter, clothing, and physical health, as well as economic aid, while the important and less visible qualitative nature of trauma is left less addressed, or even ignored. At the same time, it is this qualitative impact on the individual’s sense of self and perception of the world, and in turn the impact on the community they make up, that is the longest lasting and most difficult to recover from.

Well intentioned helpers often mistakenly gravitate almost exclusively toward quickly identified concrete needs. While this is understandable as a first responding order of business in lending aid to desperate people showing up in one’s community, consideration of what needs exist to attend to can tend to remain narrowly focused on this most visible and quantifiable category. What is missed or ignored are the deeper and longer lasting qualitative wounds and needs – needs that are essential to successful recovery and transition, leaving individuals to struggle with these problems on their own, and most often unsuccessfully.

We have found that within the trauma experience, when a person’s internal resources are greatly diminished, and they are not assisted with on-going psychosocial treatment, being thrust into major life changes most often results in deterioration. In this way unhealed trauma directly and severely inhibits adequate adjustment to resettlement and integration of refugees, and an individual is more likely to withdraw or resist acculturation and integration. This may lead to those providing assistance becoming puzzled when recipients of their help do not demonstrate more enthusiastic satisfaction, or do not more quickly recover from their ordeals and integrate more fully into the local society. The inability to adapt and a lack of understanding by the community of these symptoms can lead to increased isolation, segregation, and continued deterioration.

What is required are an increased public awareness of the symptoms of war trauma in particular, and providing holistic, culturally appropriate trauma healing services to those in need. Under circumstances when there are a significant number of refugees suffering from trauma, approaches to healing that do not also include working with the community as a whole are inadequate and likely to fall short. (Olweean, 2001). Any treatment model must also be sensitive to the cultural and spiritual context of both the trauma experience and treatment. Thus, in addition to adaptations of more standard mental health treatment methods it is important to enlist vital traditional aspects of the society, such as its cultural and spiritual resources (Krippner, 2001).

Multimodal and Whole Person Approaches

An effective response to these challenges, then, requires attending to the multiple nature of the refugee experience, and at the same time utilizing an integrated whole person approach to healing trauma and catastrophic loss that is psycho-social-biological-spiritual in nature and addresses the trauma within the cultural context. Focusing assistance on both aspects allows for more successfully endorsing and supporting the healthy internal resources of the individual and their community to strengthen and promote resilience and positive transformation in the face of adversity and momentous change

Local capacity building and community-based training and treatment programs are particularly beneficial and essential in regions of conflict where local services, skill resources, and material resources are scarce. In these circumstances directing aid toward individual and social healing, re-empowerment, self-determination, and dignity, while actively investing in the local human service system, promotes a fuller and more sustainable recovery at all levels of a society

An underlying concept seen as fundamental to these communal healing efforts is employing the human resources of the community itself to become the primary provider of healing and recovery through a transfer of practical skills to both indigenous service providers and the local general population. One example of such a local capacity building approach is Common Bond Institutes’ community-based Social Health Care (SHC) training and treatment program that has been conducted in various regions since the end of the Balkan Wars, and is currently operating in the Middle East.

What is also called for is increased cooperation on interdisciplinary and cross-cultural research into better understanding the dimensions, dynamics, and implications of communal and transgenerational trauma, and the development of new holistic, culturally adapted models and practical methods for better addressing them. Common Bond Institute’s Annual International Conference on Transgenerational Trauma, and its International Journal of Communal and Transgenerational Trauma are two efforts to promote such collaborative research and development.

Final Thoughts

It is safe to say civilians have typically been the most vulnerable victims of violence and displacement due to wars, with the largest and most vulnerable of these being women and children. With technological advances in war machinery in recent history the battle field has progressively reached into and encompassed civilian areas of societies; and in fact it can be said this is increasingly becoming where much of the fighting takes place in modern warfare.

If this persists, large scale communal trauma and societal destruction can be expected to continue and escalate; and, if left unhealed, add to the historical ledger of transgenerational trauma. Along with expanded exposure of the most vulnerable and helpless members of society to the ravages of war, in some cases used as a tactic to demoralize and weaken a society, there comes a profound escalation in mass atrocities and those fleeing for their lives to safe havens as refugees. As a result the dilemma of forced migration is not expected to diminish or even level off in the foreseeable future.

Over this time both those fleeing impossibly perilous situations and those sanctuary communities receiving them will continue to be faced with these very human issues and challenges. How they are met will determine the caliber of our compassion, our relationships with each other, and our future. To succeed humanitarian healing and recovery efforts must unavoidably be concerted and global; committed to a new collaborative model of shared knowledge, skills, resources, support, and responsibility. This is a task and challenge for the world community that crosses many disciplines, cultures, and societal boundaries; and one of the fundamental tasks that will define this period in our history.

References

UNHCR (2016). Global Forced Displacement Hits Record High
Retrieved from http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/latest/2016/6/5763b65a4/global-forced-displacement-hits-record-high.html)

Krippner, S. (2001). Overview: In the Wake of War
In Krippner, S. & McIntyre, T (Eds.), The psychological impact of war trauma on civilians: An international perspective. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Olweean, S. (2001). When society is the victim: The catastrophic trauma recovery project.
In Krippner, S. & McIntyre, T (Eds.), The psychological impact of war trauma on civilians: An international perspective. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Olweean, S. & Eshowsky, M. (2017). A recurring global syndrome: Challenges in treating an epidemic of communal trauma. In Stout, C (Eds.), Why global health matters: How to (actually) make a difference in the world.


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