The front page of the New York Times again features refugees. Children looking out the window of a van, with big frightened eyes, with no curiosity, only pain. How many more times do we need to see these pictures, how many times have we seen the same eyes looking at us, as if saying “do not avert your eyes, you were us, you could again be us.” I look at them and think of my parents and how they must have sacrificed everything in order to make sure my brother and I would avoid the fate of so many other children who did not survive. I buried for years the feelings of dread, of hunger, and uncertainty. The eyes that looked at me from the image on the paper felt like they were telling me a very familiar story, conveying a feeling too familiar.
Perhaps it was always like this. Perhaps from the beginning of time we were always refugees escaping from groups that hunted us for our differences. Different look, skin color, different belief system, different shape, or the audacity of rejecting their commands. Like animals, we seek a place where our offspring will be able to grow and thrive in safety, where they will have enough food. As parents we want to be free to provide them with love and protection, to teach them values, our values, which we carry with us from our ancestors. But the so-called place of safety at which we arrive always has others in it, with their own culture, their own values.
When I arrived with my parents to the promised land, our eyes were blinded by the brightness of the sun, and we joined those who came before us to make it our place – to ensure we could thrive and survive. Refugees learn to fight for survival. Refugees bring with them the determination to build a home, to connect to the land. And sometimes when they are joining forces with people who are of the same culture, with the same needs and ancestral dreams, they fail to see others who are in their way. Thus we, refugees from one place, create other refugees who flee to another place.
Almost every place in the world has been touched in one way or another by the plight of refugees. Many indigenous peoples were made to become refugees in their own countries, by people who looked at them as savages. Cultural domination and forcible religious conversions have occurred in the world throughout the known history of civilization. Domination seems to be in our animal nature. We can see it in baboon communities when an alpha male will not tolerate any competition or sharing of power. The ones who do not comply become refugees and have to search for other tribes, who sometimes take them in.
A professor of biological sciences and of neurology, Robert Sapolsky has spent many years studying baboons in Africa, and wrote about the similarity between their behavior and human behavior. Unfortunately, we do not seem to have learned much; only our technology and weapons have become more lethal.
As a therapist working with trauma, I first had to deal with and understand my own trauma. I had to understand what made me resilient and able to thrive. The study of epigenetics deals with changes in gene expression not resulting directly from mutations of DNA sequences, and which lead to the formation of inherited traits both within and between generations. In some ways we inherit, or carry in us, the traumas of past generations. However, we also inherit our parents’ and grandparents’ positive experiences, their coping skills, and their resilience. Some indigenous tribes believe that if we heal our own traumas, we heal 7 generations back and 7 generations forward. By healing ourselves we create a better world for our ancestors and for our children. I like the metaphor which Terry Real, a family and developmental therapist, uses: “Family dysfunction rolls down from generation to generation, like a fire in the woods, taking down everything in its path until one person in one generation has the courage to turn and face the flames. That person brings peace to their ancestors and spares the children that follow.”
I like this notion, and perhaps that gives me hope and strength to work with myself and with my clients. I believe we are all refugees who bring our roots with us – our cultural roots and our unique individual strengths and weaknesses. As I explore with curiosity and respect my own culture and its influences on my choices and existence in the world, I need to face the other across from me the same way, compassionately. I embrace the words of Pema Chödrön: “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
Shared humanity should not be shared misery and strife. As long as nations are determined to conquer and subjugate other nations, we can expect only bloodshed and more misery. We already see the mighty hand of the weapons of destruction pushing their war machinery toward Ukraine, yet again preparing for suffering and misery. Kahlil Gibran wants us to believe that suffering is a necessary ingredient for becoming better people. He claims: “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” Perhaps it is so, but I believe that it is not absolutely necessary. I believe that it is time we respect our differences and accept them. It is time to embrace the notion of becoming a civilized world – a world in which every country perceives being civilized by the criteria suggested by Primo Levi in If This Is a Man: “the more the wisdom and efficiency of the country’s laws hinder a weak man from becoming too weak and a powerful one too powerful.” Looking at the world today it seems we are not able to find even one civilized country.
As demoralizing as this may be, we can find pockets of civilization everywhere. The ancient Chinese, Sun Tzu, brings me special wisdom and hope. He states: “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” I take this opportunity to look around and see some of the good that happens: Countries that open their borders and hearts to accept refugees and provide spaces for healing. Those that acknowledge the wrongs they did to their indigenous populations, and provide education to healthcare workers in respect of multicultural wisdom. In every situation we can find both perpetrators and protectors. I think each of us has both parts – we need to acknowledge, accept, and forgive. Chuck Palahniuk suggests: “If we can forgive what’s been done to us… If we can forgive what we’ve done to others… If we can leave our stories behind. Our being victims and villains. Only then can we maybe rescue the world.”
What then can I do? “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” – Desmond Tutu