Helping Refugees – Trauma and Transformation

Vicki Enns

refugees, trauma, trauma-informed, refugee crisis, syria

With millions of people needing to flee their homes and seek refuge in other parts of the world, the stories of refugee individuals and families will interweave with people all over the world.  If you are one offering support in some fashion, how will your own story be influenced by theirs?

Many of us as helpers are familiar with stories of trauma, survival and recovery to different degrees.  However, the emerging stories of refugees bring unique layers of the need to transform lives. They also show sometimes surprising outcomes of resilience and change in anyone’s life that is touched by this endurance of the human spirit.

On top of universal human themes of seeking safety, connection and security, the refugee story contains some very unique twists and turns.

  • The ground keeps moving.

Inherent in any refugee story is a trauma – a threat of loss.  However, there are many layers of threat within any one story, often with no clear beginning or end.  On the surface it would seem the threat ends once a person crosses the border away from violence and death.  However threat to one’s sense of self can be much more nuanced.

Having to make choices one never imagined as part of one’s future, giving up one’s job, home, school, friends, community, culture – indeed one’s identity – sweeps the carpet out from underneath.  Perhaps this is like an earthquake that doesn’t stop – the ground just keeps moving.

  • There is more than one “ground zero”.

The phrase “ground zero” is usually used to refer to the physical location closest to the most severe destruction from a disaster.  When there are many potential points of threat, however, the impact can come at many different points on the migration journey.

For many refugees, their experience of devastating impact began with anticipation of leaving and seeing their world change around them before they fled.  The migration experience itself carries multiple dangers and unexpected loss.  Arrival in a new place may not equal instant peace.  The shock of a new culture, new weather, new language and new roles can leave new waves and craters of change.

  • Resilience emerging alongside the suffering.

The human spirit is determined and built to survive.  Refugee individuals and families are stretched and pulled – often bringing out untapped capacities and strengths.  The powerful anticipation of hope and change out of such devastating loss creates a crucible for emerging skills: pulling together with others to survive, courage to learn new skills and new language, incredible flexibility to consider new possible roles and ways of being, and a transformed sense of a much broader and bigger world.

Unique Effects on Helpers

Supporting people as they navigate these turbulent waters inevitably influences helpers as well.  If we are open-hearted at all, we will also feel the shock waves of change in our own lives.

  • We become more real.

There are many reasons people will be pulled to support and help refugees.  We all want to find hope and experience the fulfillment of our empathic motivation to be helpful.

However – to truly be a helpful catalyst toward positive change we need to get our own agenda out of the way.  We may not see gratitude, integration or change in the way we anticipate.  If we can bring true respect, compassion and trustworthiness, we may discover our own capacity for empathy and understanding expands.  We become more real through the relationship.

  • Discovering the bigger story.

Witnessing another’s story of trauma, loss or profound change inevitably influences us.  If we morbidly focus in on the devastation, the threat, the loss or despair we will also be crushed and potentially depleted.

The antidote is to keep moving through this chapter to the story of survival, perseverance, and what do people draw upon to take that next step.  Often the moments of triumph in a person’s story are not what or when we expect.  Be open to surprise. It’s those surprising small victories that are the bigger story.

  • Universal connection.

War divides us.  It draws attention to differences and points of departure between human beings.  The ongoing warring nature of the human species presents us with what might best be called a spiritual challenge.  Spiritual in the sense of how do we move toward what is life-giving?  Toward what unites us and can be meaningful across cultural, political and racial lines?

The challenge before us is to be willing to be open and intentional to learn from those most directly affected.  Can we face the full human experience from the horrific to the jubilant? Can we dare to make space for all of it and find those connections within ourselves?

As we pull together in support of people fleeing violence and loss, perhaps we will all discover surprising changes in our lives.  Instead of differences, we may find we actually need each other to make sense of it all and emerge stronger and more resilient from the effort.

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.

Author: Vicki Enns (MMFT, RMFT)
Clinical Director, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

Vicki is the editor and co-author of CTRI’s book, Counselling Insights: Practical Strategies for Helping Others with Anxiety, Trauma, Grief, and More. The book is available on our website.

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