World Refugee Day, 20th June 22

To mark this day one of our counsellors reflects on how we might as practitioners engage with the challenging issues it raises.

My earliest sustained encounters with refugees came in London in the early 90s. I was teaching young people and adults at a college in Westminster. Many of these students had been driven by civil war from homes in Somalia, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, or the former Yugoslavia, with others forced to flee persecution or threat of death from regimes around the world. Among the people I remember most warmly are a motor mechanic from the Horn of Africa, a high court judge from the Middle East, a trainee doctor from Bosnia, a Tamil accountant, and a soldier from Russia. Their experiences as refugees and their ways of dealing with them were unique and deeply personal. Simultaneously, though, they shared much in common. I heard and saw plenty of evidence to support the World Health Organisation’s observations that refugees frequently suffer ‘anxiety and sadness, hopelessness, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, irritability, anger and/or aches and pains’; that trauma resulting from war and torture is commonplace and frequently prolonged; and that the psychological problems provoked by adapting to a strange culture while mourning the loss of home, are manifold [1].

I doubt few us can truly imagine how it must feel to have one’s most treasured relationships with people and places so utterly fractured. The philosopher Edward S. Casey wrote that nostalgia is ‘not merely a matter of regret for lost times; it is also a pining for lost places, for places we have once been in yet can no longer reenter.’ Yet alongside the grief and other forms of distress I witnessed in London, it was impossible to ignore the resourcefulness of so many of the refugees with whom I worked. The energy with which individuals sought out their countryfolk, seizing opportunities to connect, celebrate and validate their culture and customs plainly revealed the recognition that the places we inhabit are almost always social spaces as much as geographical. This helps explain why socialising with people of the same ethnic origin is listed by the WHO as a protective factor for refugees’ mental wellbeing. It seems reasonable that where host cultures encourage and embrace such collective affirmations of identity, this contributes to newcomers’ hopefulness that their unfamiliar location could eventually feel something close to home.

But the unfamiliar location in which my students found themselves was the already multi-cultural London Borough of Westminster, which between the years of 1983 and 1998 contained almost 16,000 asylum seekers and refugees [2]. Here in Herefordshire the figure for 2020 was fewer than one hundred refugees in total [3]. Such a tiny number inhibits the chances of our local refugees finding and connecting with fellow countryfolk as a group. While counsellors and therapists cannot fill that gap, we must be proactive in connecting with the refugees in our community, because as Emmy Van Deurzen puts it in the May edition of Therapy Today:

‘We as therapists can help people to find this new strength in themselves, this pride in their new identity as having withstood these very trying times and tribulations. And from that, people realise that they can make meaning, they do have values, they can have self-worth and purpose.’

That is certainly something we are equipped to do. Is there a risk here, though, of implicitly laying the burden of responsibility to change and adapt at the feet of refugees? What about those in our county and quite possibly among our clients, who feel resistant to welcoming more refugees into our community? To dismiss their discomfort as nothing but bigotry would be too easy, and an avoidance of our professional and ethical responsibility to work with difficult feelings, our own included. Speaking of the US-Mexico Border Wall, Donna Orange urges us to acknowledge our own entanglement in the systems behind the crises that force people to become refugees. Her answer lies in a professional and personal commitment to the growth of radical hope and empathy. That’s an aim that I hope all counsellors and psychotherapists can concur with on International Refugee Day and every other day.

MCS is a counselling service located in Hereford centre that offers affordable therapy and can provide the space in which people affected by the issues touched on here can find help. If you are affected by any of the issues highlighted in this post and thinking about therapy for yourself or someone you know do get in touch by using contact us button on this page.

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