Many refugees deal with mental health issues and struggle to address them.In many of the books I read, people had to push through their hardships; they did not take time to mourn or think about what was happening to them. As a result, they had trouble later in life. Everything they had been holding back would rush to the surface, making them immobile. They have to take time to step back from life and address their issues.
The subject matter studied in school is often what triggers everything to rush back. In their book Immigrant America, Portes and Rumbaut gave the following example that stuck out to me.
I saw commonalities in the problems the women had. Many of them struggled with mental health as a result of:
In an elementary school in San Francisco, a teacher was playing “hang-man” with her class as a spelling lesson. One “Limited-English-Proficient” (LEP) student, a Cambodian refugee, bursts into tears and becomes hysterical. Later, through an interpreter, the teacher learns that the student had witnessed the hanging of her father in Cambodia.5
Portes and Rumbaut, page 206
Survivor's guilt, loose ends, and being stuck in limbo.
Women felt unworthy to be alive and responsible for their loved one's death. When they were deprived of burying the dead, it increased these feelings. Leaving without knowing the fate of family members, friends, and neighbors also made women feel guilty for surviving and living a more comfortable lifestyle. Sandra in How Dare the Sun Rise struggled with this a lot. Her younger sister was shot right in front of her during an attack in their refugee camp. She had always felt extremely guilty for surviving that night, but in college she reached her breaking point and she was haunted by the memories. She writes:
Here’s the thing about flashbacks: They don’t give warnings. They just show up, unannounced, unprovoked. You could be having a great day, and then, out of nowhere, dreadful images start filling your head. The next thing you know, you’re on the floor, curled up in the fetal position, unable to remember how you got there. Your limbs ache and your ears ring, as if you were right back in that awful place you tried so hard to forget. Your body shivers, even when you’re indoors and the temperature is seventy-five degrees. You don’t want to call anyone who might understand, like your mom or your siblings, because you don’t want to ruin their day. So you end up crying to your friends. But you can’t find the words to explain that you can never visit your sister’s grave, because she has no grave. It feels like you want to scream, but your lungs fail. How do you explain to someone that you’re grieving because you never had the chance to do so as a child?
Uwiringiyimana, pages 238-239
Omar describes the impact of her survivor's guilt in her book, This is What America Looks Like.
Reflecting on the hard choices people had to make for survival back in Africa, I had to reconcile the reckless decisions I had made for survival of a different kind. The breakdown of my marriage, like that of my relationships with other family members, was a direct result of my unresolved conflict over the fact that while people and places I loved had been destroyed, I had survived. I had to learn to forgive myself and fully accept the woman I had become, before Ahmed and anyone else I loved could do the same.
Omar, page 154
Abawi describes the hardship loose ends present in his novel A Land of Permanent Goodbyes.
Death, especially the death of a child, haunts mothers. Amidst conflict, they spend all of their energy trying to keep their children safe, become ill with worry, and sacrifice everything they have to leave. Sometimes this is not enough, and a child dies. The mother is overcome with lifelong grief. In the following clip, an Iraqi mother shares her story.
They didn’t find Salim’s body. That often happens in war. Families are forced to suffer not only loss, but also the bleak existence of living with dark hope. These are the people I meet with broken souls, tired hearts and lost minds, clinging to the fantasy that their loved one is living in a dreamed existence. They know, at least deep down, that this is not the truth, but they dream it anyway, because to fool the mind helps fool the heart. And to fool the heart is what they think they need to survive. In reality, it’s more like being addicted to a drug that controls your every breath and thought. It doesn’t allow them the freedom to be happy, because no matter what, the darkness will always shadow the dream.
Abawi, page 28
In the Nexflix Documentary series Immigration Nation, they address the large number of people who go missing when they attempt to make the journey from Mexico to the United States. Their unidentified bodies pile up in the United States' morgues. As a result, many mothers live in agony; they do not know if their child is alive, how they died, and if they can ever recover the body. In Enrique's Journey, Nazario writes about the dangers their children face when they make the journey to the United States.
Abawi writes about the extreme cruelty mothers can face in his book, A Land of Permanent Goodbyes.
... [He] tells me about his perilous hitchhiking journey. He was threatened and robbed. Still, he says, he was lucky. Each year, thousands of other children going to find their mothers in the United States travel in a much more dangerous way. The children make the journey on top of Mexico’s freight trains. They call it El Tren de la Muerte. The train of death.
Nazario, page 28
The Mixed Migration Center also shares the extreme cruelty mothers undergo when they flee their countries. In the 2018 report, "Experiences of Female Refugees & Migrants in Origin, Transit, and Destination Countries", they write:
Not too far away was a woman hidden in her niqab, covered from head to toe in black, even wearing gloves. She held back tears that only those next to her could see, and only then if they tried hard enough. But nothing she could do stopped her body from trembling. The loose fabric could not hide her shudders. She was the boy’s mother, forced to watch the execution of her youngest son. Her husband had his arms around her, feigning strength, his sunken eyes visible even from a distance. Tareq noticed that his gray hair was neatly combed and beard coifed, a sign of a man living on autopilot and disbelief. Both looked like people who had nearly had the life beaten out of them and were waiting for the final blow.
Abawi, page 64
Many other pieces of literature shared the hopelessness that accompanies being stuck in limbo. This often occurs in refugee camps. You can wait years, even decades, in refugee camps before you have the chance to resettle. Inside the refugee camps your rights are limited, you depend on others for survival, and you are stationary without many options to propel yourself forward. Bhutanese refugees are one group of refugees that are very familiar with this reality. In the Human Rights Watch Report, "Trapped by Inequality: Bhutanese Refugee Women in Nepal" this issue is referenced. They share:
Another bad experience was that a baby child of 7–8 months was crying a lot while we sat on the boat. The smuggler took the baby from her mother and dropped her into the water and we saw the sinking baby and no one said anything. We were a large group of people and did not want to get caught by the police, we needed to cross the river silently.
Mixed Migration Center, page (64)
The crisis of the early 1990s has evolved into a protracted dispute with most refugees in Nepal wanting to invoke their right to return to Bhutan while the government of Bhutan refuses them entry on the grounds that they are illegal migrants or "anti-nationals."14 Like the majority of the world's refugees, the Bhutanese refugees are trapped in a "protracted refugee situation," meaning they have been living in exile for more than five years and do not have the immediate prospect of a durable solution by voluntary repatriation, local integration, or resettlement in a third country.15 Refugees in these situation often suffer from lack of funding because high-profile crises involving large-scale refugee movements capture the bulk of international attention and resources. They must not only struggle to meet basic survival needs, but must also face the social and economic problems that arise after years of refugee life.Uwiringiyimana addresses this in her book How Dare the Sun Rise.
I thought about how when you grow up in a refugee camp, you don’t know how terrible the camp is because you have never known anything better. I thought about Francine, the girl with no dreams. She wasn’t growing up expecting things like basic human rights, a real home, or a future.Omar also addresses the limitations inside refugee camps. In This is What America Looks Like, she writes:
Urwiringiyimana, page 219
Sexual assault and violence.
I begged everyone and anybody with a moment to spare to come walk with me. After years of confinement, walking was the ultimate freedom. It wasn’t just the freedom of movement but also the freeing of your headspace that happens as you go. You’re moving away from noise, and up until that point my whole life was noise—from a home filled with opinionated family members to the uncertainty of war to the chaos of the refugee camps.
Omar, page 80
When there is widespread instability, conflict, and lack of freedom, women are vulnerable, and men take advantage of that. They even use it as a weapon of war and rape women on a mass scale. When women flee, it is not uncommon that they will experience sexual assault. Unfortunately, refugee men that—like women—feel helpless lash out at the women and children close to them. And because women and their children are much safer with men than alone, they stay with these men. These traumatic experiences have long lasting effects on the lives of women.
Rape is used as a weapon. It is used to intimidate, terrorize, and suppress women in areas of conflict. Musalo shares an example of this in "El Salvador-- A Peace Worse than War: Violence, Gender, and a Failed Legal Response". She writes:
Wamariya shares an example in The Girl Who Smiled Beads.
State security forces engaged in widespread sexual brutality. Women were targeted for sexualized forms of violence, including mass rape.86 These acts often took place during attacks on rural communities where “[p]regnant women were ... routinely tortured and their babies were taken from them [and] [w]omen’s bodies were mutilated by cutting off their breasts or ramming objects into their vaginas.”87 The sole survivor of the 800-person massacre at El Mozote recounted that assailants raped women and girls before killing them.88 Women held in state detention also frequently suffered rape, sexual torture, and humiliation.89
Musalo, page 6
Additionally, areas with little freedom give men the power to abuse without consequence. This is a common occurrence in the Eritrean camps filled with women and girls fulfilling their mandatory military service. Their commanders have complete control over their living situations and can make life miserable for them if they do not follow their commander's requests. The Eritrean military claims that sexual abuse is against the rules, but there is very little regard for these rules. Perpetrators are unlikely to be punished, which reinforces the behavior. Kibreab interviewed the victims of this practice and shared their stories in his paper, "Sexual Violence in the Eritrean National Service". He writes:
Rape is the story of women and war, girls and war, hundreds of thousands of mothers, daughters, sisters, grandmothers, cousins, and aunts in my country alone, hundreds of millions across the world. So many men were murdered in the massacre. So many women later died of HIV. Rape, ruin—corporeal, psychological, social—lingered in even the most polished, sophisticated, private spaces decades after the war... Rwandans believe we’re comfortable with silence. But silence accommodates hate.
Wamariya, page 390
The same situation occurred in Cambodia, where women were forced into labor camps by the Khmer Rouge. Conditions at these camps were terrible and the officials and commanders used them to their advantage. In "Gender-Based Violence during the Khmer Rouge Regime: Stories of Survivors from Democratic Kampuchea", Nakawagawa shares the testimony of a person who witnessed the abuse.
According to the key female informants who were interviewed in depth, abusive officers apply various methods to force and blackmail female conscripts to respond positively to sexual demands. Although few in number, those who refuse to comply—who, against all odds, insist on asserting their agency and individual choice—are assigned to dangerous tasks, or sent to dangerous locales and/or places of hardship, or face psychological bullying and physical punishment. Most interviewees reported that practices such as beating, detention in shipping containers or underground cells, exposure to extreme heat, or denial of home leave were also common. Human Rights Watch (2009) reported on the case of a female recruit who had served as a conscript for ten years and explained, “first you do your military training[,] then they hold you forever without your rights. The military leaders can ask you for anything and if you refuse their demands then you can be punished. Almost every woman in the military experiences this kind of problem.”
Kibreab, page 11
When women flee, they take the risk that they will be abused again. The popular migrant paths are not safe places for women. In Enrique's Journey: The Story of a Boy's Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother, Nazario shares the story of one young women who did everything in her power so she would not become a victim to sexual violence again.
“In 1973, I had lived in X District for three months before I heard that a protean srok (district chief) had raped 70 girls. His name was S. I had been a Pol Pot soldier and part of revolution since 1973, and I was sent to work in X District of Siem Reap Province for three months in that year. He took every woman who wanted to be promoted as kamaphebal (higher level cadre) into his room. He took each woman to the room and asked them to undress their clothes. Then, they were forced to have sex with him in return for promotion. He continually did this to 70 women in total. No one dared to let the cat out of the bag until a woman told everyone after she refused to have sex with him. The women were low-ranking members of the Angkar.” -A former KR soldier
Nakawagawa, page 23
Finally, four smugglers let them tag along with eighty migrants who Gabi learned had paid between $5,000 and $8,000 dollars a piece. They put her up front to help cut a path in the dense vegetation. She rebuffed constant demands for sex. She tried to look as ugly as possible. She hardly slept, never smiled, or combed her hair. Her legs turned black with ticks. She felt as though bugs were eating her alive, but she dared not lift her skirt to remove them.
Nazario, Pages 249-250
Even if you are not the victim of sexual assault or violence, fear greatly impacts your well-being. To stay safe you have to be actively vigilant and take steps to make yourself less of a target. Lam, an eleven-year-old girl, experiences this in Russell's House Without Walls as she is fleeing Vietnam.
Someone warns from the top of the steps,
“Young women and girls, find places to hide!
They are less than fifty feet away!”
The cabin looks like a war zone
after a devastating strike.
People began moving hither and thither,
trying to find places to hide.
But there are not many places to hide.
Some cry and wail that they prefer drowning to being
Russell, page 46
Women on the journey from Central America to the United States experience this on an extreme level. They do everything they can so they are not sexualized and attacked. Nazario writes about this in Enrique's Journey.
Refugee camps are very dangerous for women. According to Jenson in "Gender-Based Violence in Refugee Camps: Understanding and Addressing the Role of Gender in the Experiences of Refugees" the need for control and domination drives sexual assault and violence among refugees. She states:
Nearly one in six migrant girls detained by authorities in Texas says she has been sexually assaulted during her journey, according to a 1997 University of Houston study. Some girls journeying north cut off their hair, strap their breasts, and try to pass for boys. Others scrawl on their chests, TENGO SIDA. “I have AIDS.”
Gender-based violence exists everywhere, but when the social and moral structure breaks down, women become more vulnerable. Gender-based violence is about control, and between conflict and peace, men become more dominating. In ARV’s, women experience higher levels of gender-based violence than the global estimate. Women perform subordinate gender roles to avoid violence, and social stigma and inadequate support systems prevent women from reporting. These problems challenge humanitarian initiatives regarding resettlement, female empowerment, and the legal system.
Jenson, page 6
This occurs in Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil's book, The Girl Who Smiled Beads. Claire—Clemantine's older sister—stays with an abusive man because he offers them relative safety. Additionally, she excuses his behavior as a result of their situation.
In the areas surrounding camps, locals can be hostile and aggressive towards refugees, particularly women. In the book Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali gives an example of this.
She understood that Rob, too, had lost everything—his job, his home, his self—and now that he was a refugee, like us, he wanted to broadcast his pain. He hit Claire, he drank the last sips of our water. He carried nothing but his own food.
Wamariya and Weil, page 206
One morning when I went to get water with all the throngs of other women I heard that a woman had been attacked in the night. She had arrived alone, and she was from a small subclan; she had no men to protect her. Kenyan soldiers had taken her out of her hut in the night and raped her.The camps are dangerous on multiple levels. Unfortunately, those who are meant to provide protections can prove to be abusers themselves. This occurred inside Nepali refugee camps for the Bhutanese people forced out of their country. In 2003, Human Rights Watch reported on this phenomenon in "Nepal/Bhutan: Refugee Women Face Abuses".
I went to see her in the tiny rag hut she had made for herself. She was one big wound. Her face was swollen and covered in dry blood, her clothes were torn, there were marks all over her legs. She was shaking uncontrollably. I touched her hand and asked if I could help her but she didn’t talk. All she could say was Ya’Allah, Ya’Allah, “Allah have mercy on me.”
I went to get her more water, and all the people nearby told me, “You shouldn’t be seen with that woman. She is impure. People will say you’re the same.” All I could see was a human being who had been abused, who was on the verge of death, but to them, she was an outcast.
Ali, page 157
When female refugees attempt to survive outside of the camps they have little protection against those who wish to harm them. This is demonstrated in Abawi's A Land of Permanent Goodbyes.
Following investigations of sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers in refugee camps in West Africa, several cases of sexual exploitation involving refugee aid workers surfaced in Nepal in October 2002. A subsequent investigation led to findings indicating negligence by UNHCR and the government of Nepal in preventing and responding to widespread and long-standing gender-based violence in the camps. Victims encountered inadequate support services and a male-dominated refugee camp leadership that often ignored gender-based violence or meted out harmful settlements.
Brave women are deciding to step forward and call out their abusers. They are making sure these men cannot remain anonymous; their actions will not be forgotten and swept under the rug. Uwiringiyimana does this in her book, How Dare the Sun Rise. She writes:
Although, outside the walls of his sanctuary, there were days when Tareq almost felt grateful his mother was not there with them as he witnessed how poor Syrian women were being treated by men who exploited their desperation, poverty and beauty. Walking through the streets of Taksim, across the water from the Blue Mosque, he often spotted the predators who lurked in the shadows, hovering over young female refugees. The men’s eyes were soulless and would turn a body into ice with just a glare. Tareq always tried to warn the girls away, and he quite often paid the price with a fist to his gut. It was always worth the pain, though it didn’t always work.
Abawi, page 83
Cambodian women who survived the Khmer Rouge Regime are also speaking up. This is despite the chance they will be ostracized; there is a strong culture of silence in Cambodia regarding rape and gender-based violence. In the "Cambodian Women's Oral History Project: Life Stories of Survival under the Khmer Rouge Regime" researchers learn more about why this silence persists and the women who are affected by it.
I have decided to tell this story because I know that I do have a voice. I do not want to be a part of this culture of silence. This book is my voice. I am telling my life story in these pages, and so I want to tell my full, authentic life story. So many girls around the world—refugee girls in particular—suffer in silence after being sexually assaulted by someone they know. Most rapes happen at the hands of a relative or friend, not a stranger. I want girls to know that they have the power to speak out. They don’t have to stay quiet. No matter what culture or country you are from, there will always be pressure to remain silent, to never tell. But you don’t have to protect sexual predators. By speaking up, you are standing up for yourself. And you might be preventing it from happening again. Tell people what happened. The predators expect you to stay silent. You can prove them wrong.
Uwiringiyimana, page 102
One of the most common beliefs that sexual crimes did not happen under the Khmer Rouge regime is the existence of the rule against "immoral offenses." That rule, broadly interpreted, was: Do not love one another. Parents were not to love children, children were not to love parents, husbands and wives were to remain strangers and were permitted only infrequent conjugal visits. Any sexual relations outside of marriage were strictly prohibited. While that included rape, it did little to protect women from Khmer Rouge officers and cadre, who exerted total and unchecked control over everyday life. Indeed, the rule prevented many women from sharing their stories and seeking justice or redress, as the rule punished victims of rape for de facto violations of sex outside of marraige. Perversely, evidence is growing that rape victims were punished much more often and more harshly than perpetrators, who were almost exclusively Khmer Rouge actors.
Sok Samith tells the story of her friend Ouk, a Vietnamese woman accused of "immoral offenses." Ouk and Sok Samith lived next to each other and farmed the same rice field, spending long days alone together in the paddy. Ouk's husband had been sent to the front lines as a soldier. When Ouk had not heard from him for some time, she decided to consult the local fortune teller. Ouk took great risk in this approach, as the fortune teller was also the Khmer Rouge District Officer, Ta So (Grandfather So). As District Officer, Ta So had access to privileged information, and also unfettered power over the population. Ta So agreed to tell the fortune of Ouk's husband, but only in exchange for sex . Fearing her husband dead, and with little room to refuse, Ouk apparently consented. The "barter" was extended for months, most likely through trickery or coesrsion, until Ouk became pregnant. Terrified to be found out, Ouk hid her pregnancy for seven months before being arrested and publicly punished for "immoral offenses." Ta So meanwhile disappeared, and his punishment, if any, remains unknown.
This is when sexual assault is used to impregnate women. Victims struggle with the psychological toll from rape, lack of healthcare, and raising an unwanted child. I found examples of the widespread use of this practice in Rwanda and Cambodia.
In Rwanda, Hutu men raped with the intent to spread HIV and impregnate women. These actions were intended to have long-term affects on the Tutsi community. Mullins explores the long-term effects in "'We are going to rape you and taste Tutsi women': Rape during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide".
Around 200,000 to 300,000 women were raped over the 100 day period. When an estimated 20,000 of these women became pregnant they committed infanticide, gave their children to orphanages, or decided to raise them alone. Raising these children is a difficult and complicated task. The relationships between mothers and their children are strained and take a lot of work. Torgovnik writes about his in his article, "Rwandan Genocide Revisited: What Happened to the Children of Rape Victims?". He interviews Martin about his experiences as a child of a rape victim.
...widespread rapes often produced a birth cohort of mixed ethnic children. The effects of this are three-fold. First, it provides a long-lasting reminder of the humiliation and derogation of the people as a whole. The children that survive to birth and into youth are a constant symbol of the genocide experience. Second, as the children and their mothers are often outcasts from their kin groups because of the assaults on themselves, this enhances the social disorganization of villages and cities, which now bear the burden of either caring for or ignoring this new underclass of community members ( Diken and Laustsen 2005 ; Salzman 1998 ). Third, in societies where lineage membership is determined via patrilineal parentage, the children in question are members of the father’s and not the mother’s ethnic group. In effect, this can change the symbolic ethnic group membership of a community and work towards the elimination of a population ( Bracewell 2000 ; Card 1996 ; Salzman 1998 ).
In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge put strict policies in place regarding relationships and sexual activity. This started with the dismantling of the family unit. Boehnlein and Kinzie discuss this in their piece "The Effect of the Khmer Rouge in the Mental Health of Cambodia and Cambodians", that is featured in the report "Cambodia's Hidden Scars". They write:
My mother could have aborted me. I respect that she didn’t neglect me – she took responsibility and raised me, educated me, and I know it was hard work. But at an early age she took me to live with relatives while she went back to school for five years. When she came to see me I called her Auntie, not Mother.
I love my mother, but when she got married in 2013 I felt our bond had been cut – she was not as interested in me. One day I said, ‘I want you to tell me that you love me.’ She just said, ‘I take care of you and did everything for you…’ But she couldn’t say the words ‘I love you’.
I haven’t visited my mother for several months. Most of our problems arose from questions about who I am and who my father was. Now this has been resolved, I hope there will be less conflict between us.
During the Khmer Rouge era, families were forcefully separated, with each generation segregated into labor camps. When families were together, children were encouraged by the state to inform on their parents, and family authority was replaced by Angkar, the term given to the obscure, all-powerful supreme authority of Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge era. For children, the traditional formation of identity was greatly altered so that they were encouraged to identify with the all-powerful state and reject, and even, betray their families. Elders in the family no longer occupied roles of authority based on their age or experience.
Boehnlein and Kinzie, page 36
The regime then began forcing people to marry so that they can make children to support the Angkar. People had to marry those they were assigned to; love and previous relationships were void. The Khmer Rouge officials often checked that couples were consummating the marriage. If they were not, they were forced to do so. Watch the following clip to hear the testimony of 2 women.
This was an extremely traumatizing experience for many. It became even more traumatizing for women when they became pregnant as a result. In "Forced Pregnancy During the Khmer Rouge Regime", Lobato writes about this.
Death rates of women during childbirth were reportedly high when forced to bear a child under such harsh circumstances. 79 As a consequence of the dreadful living conditions, the rate of stillbirths and spontaneous abortions was astonishingly high, imposing further trauma on pregnant women. 80 Most of these women had no support whatsoever during such traumatic episodes. 81 For some women who carried pregnancies to term, conflicting feeling arose from loving a child conceived in traumatic circumstances. 82
Fleeing your country, surviving the journey, and resettling is extremely difficult. In many of the books I read, women and men also experienced the difficulty of figuring out their identify and place in society. And they could not simply figure it out once and be done, it is an ongoing process. They have to constantly reconcile their past experiences with their new realities and adjust to each environment.
This is the route that was common among people I read about: Most of the time you start out with your identity and circumstances under relative control. Then, everything changes and you must adapt to a hostile environment to survive. When you escape that environment you find yourself in a place where your original identity is warped and torn into something unrecognizable. Here, you are vulnerable and have very little control over your circumstances. Finally, your circumstances are stable, yet you are a completely different person from when you started.
Your role, duties, and responsibilities adapt during times of crisis. Many people I read about had to quickly grow their strength, bravery, and competence. As they sacrifice more of themselves and deeply inhabit these roles, the world does not always give them the respect they deserve. They are going through extreme hardship, but still some groups of people treat refugees as less than human, an infestation, or a threat. Even good intentions result in people feel looked down upon. This was a frequent topic in the literature I reviewed. Dehumanizing refugees is common and empathy can be surprisingly thin. Binebine writes about this in Welcome to Paradise.
Wamariya includes the dehumanization she experienced in The Girl Who Smiled Beads.
Seeing him with his back bent double, folded in on himself, with the air of someone apologizing for existing, it was obvious he’d already slipped into the skin of a refugee. Perhaps we should have done the same and got into training for the future: learn how to become invisible, disappear into a crowd, hug the walls, avoid eye contact, speak only when spoken to, bury our pride and close our hearts to humiliation and insults, throw our switchblades into the gutter, learn to keep in the background, to be nobody: another shadow, a stray dog, a lowly earthworm, or even a cockroach. That’s it, yes, learn to be a cockroach.
Binebine, pages 106-107
Feeling dehumanized is very common inside refugee camps. Uwiringiyimana shares her experience with this phenomenon in How Dare the Sun Rise.
Soon the questions grew worse. People wanted to know if anyone in my family had been murdered, and if I had seen people get killed. I could not believe their sense of entitlement. These people did not have a right to my pain. They did not even realize that they wanted it, that they saw my life as a movie. Their questions felt prurient, violating, evidence of their inability to see me as fully human.
Wamariya, page 182
Russell writes about this feeling in her book House Without Walls.
On the days the food was delivered, I got depressed. It was as if we had been reduced to beggars. Mom and Dad waited in line with their card for their designated food supply, and it was disheartening to see my parents so powerless. All of us kids in the camp could see that our parents were no longer in control. How could parents assure their kids that everything would be fine when we could see how vulnerable they were? They couldn’t hide it. We appreciated the food, but it was a demeaning and demoralizing experience.
Uwiringiyimana, pages 71-72
When refugees flee their home and are seeking out safety, they reach a point were they are trying to just survive. It is hard to feel whole and completely human when you and those around you are struggling every minute of everyday. Some of the people I read about lost their will to live during this period. They felt like too much of a burden to themselves and their loved ones.
I feel so low.
It just dawned on me that
we are a burden for others.
We are not welcome.
Our lives seem so worthless
that no one in the world
can be bothered
to give us a hand.
Russell, page 222
In her book The Girl Who Smiled Beads, Wamariya described her state of mind inside the refugee camp, where survival was the main goal of her family. She writes:
Nisha, the main character of The Night Diary, felt like a burden as her family made their way to Pakistan. She thinks to herself:
You had to try to hang on to your name, though nobody cared about your name. You had to try to stay a person. You had to try not to become invisible. If you let go and fell back into the chaos you were gone, just a number in a unit, which also was a number. If you died, no one knew. If you got lost, no one knew. If you gave up and disintegrated inside, no one knew.
Wamariya, page 85
After you escape conflict and arrive in a new place to restart your life, the transition is difficult and you are vulnerable. Wamariya describes the feeling in The Girl Who Smiles Beads as:
I was a useless girl. I should let them all get on the train without me. Then they wouldn’t have to worry about another body, my useless body, to fill with food and water anymore.
Maybe if we get to a new home, I could slip quietly out the door one morning. They would search for me, but would soon realize it was easier without me. I am just a small, silent drop of nothing who attracts angry men and wants to be friends with the wrong girl and can’t even make herself speak to save a mother and her children.
Hiranandani, page 231
Establishing yourself and determining your identity within a new environment is not an easy task. It takes a lot of introspection and examination of the roles you inhabit. Grounding yourself in your culture is one way refugees address this. Portes and Rumbaut explore the topic in American Immigrant.
The loss, the lights—the neon American colors overtook my senses, including my senses of reality and history, and the colors of Africa started to fade. My past receded, grew washed-out, jumbled and distorted. I could no longer discern what was real and what was fake. Everything, including the present, seemed to be both too much and nothing at all. Time, once again, refused to move in an orderly fashion; the pages of the book lay scattered, unbound. This still happens to me: My life does not feel logical, sequential, or inevitable. There’s no sense of action, reaction; no consequence, repercussion; no plot. It’s just fragments floating.
Wamariya, page 69
Loss of community.
A study of Mexican immigrants, native-born Mexican Americans, and non-Hispanic whites in Santa Clara County (Silicon Valley) found the usual positive correlation between immigration and depressive symptomatology. However, although immigrants had a significantly higher prevalence of depression, the density of their “Mexican heritage”—as measured by the number of ties to Mexican-born relatives—did not increase these symptoms. On the contrary, the study found that a pervasive sense of cultural heritage was positively related to mental health and social well-being among both immigrants and native Mexican Americans.51
Portes and Rumbaut, page 189
Many refugees report a loss of community when they resettle in the United States. They are accustomed to a greater level of hospitality that is most often not present in American society. I heard this from the women I talked to from Iraq and Eritrea. They both stressed the point that our sole interaction with our neighbors in Columbus is a simple greeting. "Hi". The Eritrean women talked about missing the place where your neighbors are like family. In more social areas women have a larger support system and a greater sense of connection with those around them. Those are valuable tools when managing your mental health.
In WOSU's "Women, War, and Resettlement: Nasro's Journey", Nasro speaks of the isolation she experienced when coming to Ohio.