Last Updated: Wed Aug 01, 2012 09:08 am (KSA) 06:08 am (GMT)

Refugee experience as trauma

Fawaz Turki

Bashar Assad has massacred close to 20,000 Syrians, he has turned a million of them into destitute refugees.

To speak of refugees is to speak of a monumental crisis in the human condition. If you were ever one of these unfortunate souls, the terror of it stays with you for the rest of your life. It haunts you for decades after the fact. Its imagery — the demonic helplessness and fear, the dispossession and uncertainty — insinuates itself into your sunbconscious, recurring, at unguarded moments, in bouts of post-traumatic stress.

Judged by the way it is seen in the media, the issue of Syrian refugees fleeing the mayhem in their homeland is but a sidebar on a pitiless conflict that has cost thousands of lives.

All wars, we argue, create refugees, civilians who arrive at the borders of potential host states, harrowed and beaten, often with only the clothes on their backs, seeking asylum and protection. Sad, yes, we say, but there will be intimations of a happy ending: The refugees will one day, hopefully soon, return and their agonies will be over.

So let’s move on! Not so fast, please, with the facile explanations.
The war in Syria, now well into its second year, resulted in the exodus of 120,000 civilians to the continguous states of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. That is the official number of refugees who
have registered for assisstance from humanitarian agencies. The actual number, according to the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, “is ten times as big.”

(Over the last week alone, as many as 100,000 people may have fled the fighting in Allepo.)

Meanwhile, as these refugees pour in, the host states will increasingly feel the strain as their infrastructure is put under pressure to provide water, housing, classrooms and food.

Thus the capacity of small countries like Jordan and Lebanon to help will soon reach a saturation point. No doubt in coming days and weeks, the United Nations, along with countries from North America, the European Union and the Arab League, will chip in and see to it that these folks do not go without. That’s the easy part. Consider the human toll, the wounds that will permanently scar the psyche.

Syrian refugees come from every walk of life and several ethnic backgrounds. They are rich and poor, they are Syrian Arabs, Kurds, Armenians and Palestinians, but they all have one thing in common:
They faced the trauma of flight, having witnessed fighting, destruction and death at close range, and violent acts perpetrated against friends, neighbors and loved ones.

For a refugee distress is often chronic. At the core of the refugee experience lies the remembrance of the greatest disaster that can befall man: Severance from home and homeland. Home, as shelter and abode, is the outward sum of a person’s nobility, and his homeland is the place where he is thoroughly humanized as a citizen with a national and archetypal identity.

With the one destroyed and the other rendered unsafe, you are compelled to wander the earth, or dwell in the open fields, with mere canvas as a roof over your head, in partial return to the manner of a beast. The tragic solemnity of such an image is immeasurably humbling or those of us who have not lived the refugee experience.

I, however, as a diaspora Palestinian, have known that experience, and my life continues, to this day, to bear its stamp. Though I’m often loath to bring — for its inappropriateness — the first person into my columns, I will indulge a recollection here, that I had invoked elsewhere in the past, about a man whose psychological wounds, that he sustained as a refugee, literally killed him.

The man, called Abu Hassan, then in his late forties (he never knew or much cared about how old he was exactly) was a 1948 refugee from the city of Haifa, in Palestine, where he had been a shopkeeper, self-confident and secure at being an independent businessmen, respected around the neighborhood where he lived in his own home and worked in his own shop.

Now in Beirut, where he and his family ended up at a Palestinian refugee camp, he was enrolled with a United Nations relief agency that doled out food rations to the refugees.

The transition was so sudden, so cataclysmic, it shook him to his core.
For several years after that, he would mope around mumbling incoherently about how soon, for surely it must be soon, he and his people would return home, to Haifa, where they would no longer be subjected to such indignities in “the land of others.”

His hair, which had been jet-black when he left Palestine, now turned snow-white, and his voice, which had been resonant before, now lost its pitch. He walked hunched over.

He moved with effort. His world and its ways in Palestine, once as familiar to him as the wince of his own muscles, were gone. He gasped for breath, as it were, and wished for death. In no time, his last breath was inhaled and his wish was granted.

That Abu Hassan was my father is not the issue. The issue is that there were hundreds, possibly thousands, of Palestinian refugees like him who met a similar fate soon after the ‘nakbe’ descended on them.

Professor Laurie Vickroy, of Bradley University in Illinois, was writing about Cuban refugees in her paper, “The Traumas of Unbelonging,” but she could have been writing about refugees everywhere, from those tens of thousands of Irish families who escaped the potato famine in their homeland in the late 1840s to Syrian refugees escaping the terror unleashed upon them by the Assad regime.

“While situations of displacement often foster survival through cultural adaptability,” Vickroy wrote, “in the context of traumatic exile, a lost home can remain not only psychically embedded as a place of origin and identity but also of an anguished dissolution of the self.”

Professor Vickroy is right. And trust me on this one, I write from experience.


The writer is a columnist at the Saudi-based arab News, where this article was published on Aug. 1, 2012

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