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Journeys in Mental Health: World Refugee Day

Our latest ‘Journeys in Mental Health’ blog honours World Refugee Day. PLOS Mental Health recently published an Opinion on the experience of trauma in the context of the conflict in Ukraine. In this collection of accounts, we hear more about the inspiring perspectives of those fleeing the war in Ukraine. We also include powerful accounts from a therapist who is also a refugee from Gambia and a Human Rights Officer who has dedicated their life to helping those fleeing conflict.

**Trigger Warning: The content below refers to topics that some may find difficult to read**

Hands reaching to each other through wire fence
Hands, by Ria Sopala from Pixabay

Fleeing from war and exile: The Ukraine Conflict

Contributor 1:

When you flee from your native country, when you are forced to seek refuge, when your education becomes void, when your home no longer exists, and so on. At that moment, we pray to God for salvation and lament: For what do I deserve such punishment? For what do I bear this pain? For what such sorrow? 

For a long time, we find ourselves in depression. It’s challenging for us to adapt to a new place, in a new country. It’s so difficult for us to part with our old profession because without knowledge of the language, we cannot work as we did before. We continue to question in our prayers: Why? Only some of us, as we progress through life and when the time comes to face God, manage to look back on the thread of our lives and see many joyful events such as a daughter’s graduation, a son’s wedding, the birth of a granddaughter, and so on. 

In that moment, we pray to God and give thanks: For preserving our lives. For giving us the opportunity to learn a new language and immerse ourselves in a new culture. For helping us acquire another profession and showing us the world from a new perspective. For choosing us to grant us another life.

Being a refugee means being chosen by God for the opportunity to see more, learn more, become stronger, compile intercultural experiences, and make a greater impact on this world. 

Being a refugee means being chosen by God for the opportunity to…become stronger…and make a greater impact on this world

Contributor 2:

I was always happy when travelling through Germany – be it for tourism or business visits.

And what a joy it was to return home to a palace built to my preferences, with its own forest, a splendid beach, and a berth on the river. The happiness of living in a world of cutting-edge technologies and fascinating services was immeasurable. For instance: Immediate delivery of products from your favourite supermarket or medicines on any day of the week, even at night in Kyiv, is as simple as a phone call. A few clicks and maximum comfort for just a few euros. Of course, conflicts and wars raged around the world at that time. Watching the news on TV inevitably led to the thought: What a horror!

But back then, I did not know what kind of horror that was. And the second thought at that time was: What a stroke of luck that everything is fine here. Waking up at home, hearing the native language, easily getting an appointment with a qualified doctor/architect/hairdresser/other specialist, enjoying childhood favourite dishes – can’t that be called happiness?

And now, I stand in line at a charity organisation in Germany, waiting to receive free baby food for my toddler. I am overwhelmed by my own helplessness when faced with the need to fill out numerous forms in an unfamiliar language, wait for up to half a year for an urgent doctor’s appointment due to a shortage of medical professionals… And here lies the real HAPPINESS – finding a safe refuge where there’s no need to hide children during air raids. And here is the TERROR – realising that the tsunami of war could easily flood any refuge. Yet, the realisation of the terror caused by wars engulfing the world teaches us to cherish every moment of peace and security.

…the tsunami of war could easily flood any refuge

Contributor 3 (Therapist):

The human soul is even deeper and more mysterious than the infinite universe. By working with the soul of each person, new, uncharted galaxies are constantly being explored! It wasn’t until my own experience as a refugee that I truly began to understand my clients after fifteen years of work as a psychotherapist in Ukraine.

I observe how difficult it is for my colleagues to grasp the essence of working with the category of refugees. Because it is an entire cosmic domain of the human soul. For example, a six-year-old boy who spoke Russian his whole life learned the Ukrainian language within a month in Germany. He feels ashamed to speak Russian with relatives and friends – he shuts his ears as soon as he hears the Russian language. What is happening in the inner universe of this boy?

Another example is a three-year-old girl who constantly asks to return to Ukraine, not for the toys but to help end the war! Where does this determination come from in the inner universe of this little girl?

The story of a woman who witnessed a rocket fragment penetrate her twelve-year-old daughter’s knee, requiring the use of the home pharmacy in the kitchen after the operation. This woman realised her calling to help others. In Germany, she learned German and is now studying psychology, a new professional direction for her – where does the soul of this woman derive so much strength from?

Why are most refugees willing to help others, even when they themselves are on the verge of survival and have nothing?

Why are most refugees willing to help others, even when they themselves are on the verge of survival and have nothing?

Contributor 4:

On World Refugee Day, we turn our gaze to those who have left their homes in search of safety, refuge, and a better life. Each refugee carries a story of tragedy but also of strength and determination to survive. These are stories of courage, resolve, and the relentless pursuit of peace and dignity.

In the eyes of a refugee, we see the suffering of past days but also the unwavering hope for a new future. Every step they take on their journey symbolises bravery and resilience, deeply touching us. Their stories remind us of how precious peace and security are and how privileged we are to enjoy them.

World Refugee Day is an opportunity to show solidarity and compassion. It is a day to remember that we are all part of the same global fabric and bear responsibility for each other. Through support, acceptance, and integration, we can assist refugees in grounding themselves in their new communities and finding a sense of belonging. It is essential to recognize the strengths and resources that refugees bring to society. Their diversity, culture, and experiences enrich our world and contribute to a better understanding and respect for one another. World Refugee Day reminds us that we are more alike than we often think and that compassion and empathy form the foundation for a harmonious society.

In these challenging times, where the world faces conflicts, poverty, and environmental crises, solidarity with refugees is crucial. Standing together as a global community, we can create a world where peace, justice, and dignity are ensured for all. World Refugee Day should remind us that despite our differences, we share common values such as respect, tolerance, and compassion. In a time marked by divisions and unrest, it is vital to build bridges and extend a helping hand to one another.

May World Refugee Day inspire us to recognize the beauty of diversity and appreciate the importance of understanding and unity. Let us work together to create a world where refugees are welcomed, their stories are heard, and their dreams can become a reality.

In a time marked by divisions and unrest, it is vital to build bridges and extend a helping hand to one another.

Contributor 5:

Flight is one of the most pressing and significant issues of the modern world. Every year, millions of people are forced to leave their homes due to conflicts, persecutions, disasters, or other emergencies. This topic is timeless and has global impacts on society, economy, and politics.

Armed conflicts are one of the main causes of flight. Millions of people are compelled to abandon their homes in search of safety due to battles and wars. For example, the Syrian conflict led to one of the largest refugee crises in history, with hundreds of thousands seeking refuge in other countries.

Flight is also triggered by persecution, violence, hunger, and natural disasters. Many refugees face difficulties and dangers on their path to safety. They have to leave everything behind and venture into the unknown, hoping for a better future.

Host countries face the challenges and opportunities of the refugee influx. Despite additional strains on local infrastructure and resources, refugees bring diversity and potential to the new society. Refugee integration can be a complex process that requires cooperation from all sides.

Empathy and support play a crucial role in improving the lives of refugees. Humanitarian aid, protection of human rights, and psychological assistance are necessary to ensure adequate living conditions and the adaptation of refugees. Solidarity and cooperation between countries are essential in addressing refugee-related issues.

It is vital to remember that refugees are individuals who have the right to protection and dignity. Each refugee story is unique, and it is important to interact with respect and understanding. Education and awareness play a significant role in overcoming prejudices and biases towards refugees. Flight has profound effects on both refugees themselves and host countries. The exchange of cultures, experiences, and knowledge can strengthen communities and enrich cultural diversity. However, without sustainable and just policies and international cooperation, refugees may encounter new obstacles.

Each refugee story is unique, and it is important to interact with respect and understanding

Being a therapist and a refugee

Contributor 6: Gambian Refugee and Therapist

I am a therapist and counsellor for refugees, and I love my work. At the same time, I am a refugee. Most of my recent clients share similar or sometimes even the same experiences as I had. Initially, when we don’t know each other yet, they are learning to trust to truthfully open up. It’s usually an uphill battle, but it rarely lasts long. Contrary to the belief of some, it also doesn’t matter if the client is female and the therapist is male, what matters more is understanding and sharing a common world. As soon as the refugees in the session realise that nothing bad will happen to them if they open up, they are eager to talk, to engage in the panorama of their past, alongside someone who is genuinely interested and naturally understands what they are talking about. It is often the first time. No one has listened to them before, no one has shared the heavy burden with them, no one has endured what they have had to endure.

I realise that the darkness in their hearts and minds is usually very deeply rooted in their early childhood biography, and the fact that circumstances that threaten their lives and their well-being, that have suddenly made them refugees, conjures up the dark shadows of long ago. The stories they tell have been kept under wraps all their lives and no one has ever heard them, but they still remember them vividly. The psychological complexes are often those of sexual abuse in very early childhood, of being a victim in an atmosphere of extreme violence and of feelings of guilt and shame. Guilt and shame play the main role in one context or another, sometimes as a perpetrator, sometimes as a victim. Being a refugee means losing the patterns of security, the masks used throughout life, many psychological and everyday habits and being thrown naked into the unknown. The previous system becomes fragile, shattered.

Severe crises, such as waking up in exile and the inherent culture shock when nothing is as it was, when one finds oneself a stranger on another planet, such shock offers a precious opportunity to discover new and never before used powers that lie dormant in the depths of darkness, and then from there, if successful, to draw great strength. But this can only happen if the person takes a risk and dares to face the monster, to look it bravely in the eye. Normally people don’t have that courage, but with a companion or a guide who is not afraid himself because he experienced the same battle and was able to defeat the monster, it can sometimes succeed. The decisive factor will be to choose the truth and not the lie, not the fear, not the mask and hypocrisy with their thousand destructive effects and poisonous blossoms. My life is what my life is. The past is not the present. I can forgive and I can not forgive, the choice is mine 

Being a refugee means losing the patterns of security, the masks used throughout life, many psychological and everyday habits and being thrown naked into the unknown

Refugees – our treasure and mirror

Contributor 7: A German Human Rights Officer after 40 years experiences

One of them, whom I met on my very long journey with refugees as a companion, coined the phrase: “Those who sit in the warm can never understand how those who are in the cold feel.” As I listened to him, I realised that this is perfectly true. Whatever more privileged people may think or assume, we are utterly incapable of imagining how refugees might feel in exile. And I have found that such unquestioning, humble respect for them is essential for all the rest, for our coexistence and our future. Refugees have a strength, a resilience, a vitality that we spoiled children of affluence and comfort can only dream of. Moreover, they come to teach us how mental health can be maintained or regained under maximum distress order.

And not only that. They are coming to our lands with their cultures and traditional richness that will complete us in our being by transforming the great ugliness of the world today into beauty – precisely because of an uncommon humility that we have never tried before. Why haven’t we done this? It could be the magic key. If there is no solution in sight as to how to put things in order on our planet, perhaps the unusual, something completely new could emerge and break through the veil.

Feeling at home is a never-ending human desire. I have seen perhaps one refugee in 100 who could honestly say that they feel comfortable and calm in exile, peaceful at heart, healthy and in exactly the right place. But a healthy society begins with inner balance and harmony of the individuals (as far as that can be a possible state for people at all). Sooner or later, former refugees become immigrants and residents, whether the receiving country likes it or not. But even with citizenship in hand, most refugees or migrants lead a life on the margins, not integrated, not included in the realms of the natives, and their constant struggle for this goal has a deeply desperate and hopeless character that never leads to success. If we natives knew how careless we are and incessantly threaten, challenge, even if unintentionally, their mental health, we would be surprised and ashamed, especially if we move in the same social environment as them. 

A life in health of mind, heart and soul is not an individual, separate undertaking, but a shared, reciprocal atmosphere, a shared space, a shared possibility and condition. My part in the health of my counterpart is the reflective half of his. I am talking here about refugees living in Germany because I can only speak sincerely, truthfully and seriously about something that I have really experienced. I mean a fully empirical experience over a longer period of time, in this case over 40 years of working and living with them. We need anniversary days, like “World Refugee Day”, because something is not as it should be with humanity. We all feel it, that’s why we create these days. My share, my half of the health of my counterpart in exile includes my contribution, my share and half of the fact that he became a refugee. Without me, he wouldn’t be one. I know that I must take my share of responsibility for his well-being, for his healing from his refugee status, his loneliness, his status as a scapegoat, an outcast, a stranger forever. I must at least lend him an open ear and listen to what he has to say, silently, without anticipating anything, without judging. Just listen. And listen. In a state of calm, transparency and without knowing what is going on. At the same time in the certainty that he will open up a world to me, that is foreign to me because I have never set foot in it.

The intention is to create a shared space in which I am still, quiet, empty and listening. And when I master this stillness, this receiving attitude, the refugee on the other side of the fence will be surprised at how unexpectedly there is no longer a fence where it has always been, but a free, wide space that could carefully be called something common, a community, a unity, an absence of separation. My counterpart would realise that I can hold what he can hold, carry what he carries, and now we are two, his loneliness has suddenly and unexpectedly disappeared. For a moment. This moment brings an unforgettable experience, and if it even repeats and repeats, then the grief slows down. The mourner met a congruent person who does not run away but stands still, an equally strong person and another survivor.

Those who sit in the warm can never understand how those who are in the cold feel

At PLOS Mental Health, we are grateful for, and in awe of, the contributions above – and for all contributions to this series of blogs.  We hope to continue to learn from these lived experiences and treasure them as a constant reminder that we need to strive for better as humans.

 *The contents of this blog reflect only the personal experience and opinion of the authors. This does not represent any kind of professional advice or the opinions of PLOS or PLOS Mental Health. It also does not reflect the experiences of all refugees.

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