Monday, April 13, 2015

For Refugees, Trauma Doesn't End with Escape From Persecution

By Patricia Billinger
Refugees face repeated traumas, challenges and upheavals. First, they witness – or are targets of – violence in their home country that is so threatening that they must abandon everything they have and flee. Many of us who have never known violent political and social upheaval erroneously assume that refugees leave the source of their trauma and fear behind when they seek refuge.

However, for many the journey is just beginning. Some spend decades in refugee camps, where life can hover on the brink of subsistence. Even those who ultimately resettle in the relative safety of places like Colorado continue to face challenges.
Some refugees escape with their lives but with injuries;
other refugees suffer less visible injuries such as PTSD.
This man, internally displaced in Iraq, lost both his legs
to a mine explosion. (c) ICRC/KRZYSIEK

“The most common diagnoses we see are PTSD, adjustment disorder, different anxiety disorders and depression,” said Laura Poole, Behavioral Health and Wellness Program Coordinator for the Asian Pacific Development Center (APDC).

Laura and her colleagues at the APDC work closely with refugees who have resettled to Colorado on a wide range of needs, from finding jobs and learning how to use the bus system to emotional counseling to address the health and mental health consequences of a lifetime of trauma, stress and uncertainty.

On Wednesday, April 15, Poole will present alongside Setu Nepal, an APDC colleague who is a refugee from Bhutan, in the April Red Cross Lunch And Learn: “From Camp to Resettlement: Mental Health Traumas Faced by Refugees.”

Setu personally knows the challenging path that refugees travel. In 1990, he had earned his bachelor’s degree, had a good job working for the Bhutanese department of health and had started a family when political forces within the Bhutanese government began persecuting ethnic and religious minorities.

Setu was forced to flee to a refugee camp in Nepal with his family, including his 5-year-old, 3-year-old and infant children. He spent the next two decades in the refugee camp, initially barely scraping by to survive.
“I had a very difficult time to raise my children in camp, having nothing in my pocket and depending on begging,” Setu recalled.

Eventually, thanks to his education, he was able to secure work at a school in Nepal and support his family. But many other refugees have no such option. Confined to a camp, unable to find work – often not allowed to seek work – and unable to return home, they face a new set of psycho-social challenges, Poole explained. Some children born and raised in refugee camps know no other sense of home or normalcy.

Those who are able to leave the camps to move to countries that have opened up refugee resettlement face yet another series of challenges that can cause fear, anxiety and depression. They are immersed in a completely new culture, with a language they likely don’t speak or read; those who had low levels of literacy in their native tongue struggle even more to adapt to a society so dependent on reading and writing English. Some come from rural societies and suddenly have to adjust to an urban setting. And the learned dependency of camps can have lasting consequences, especially for refugees resettling into the American cultural world of self-reliance and independence.

Organizations like the APDC help these refugees to navigate the cultural transition and work to ease the sources of anxiety and trauma.

Separation from family adds to the stress refugees experience.
The Red Cross works to reunite refugees separated
from their families, such as this boy who was reunited
with his parentsin Jordan.(c) ICRC/AMM
The Red Cross partners with the APDC to help with one important aspect of refugees’ resettlement and emotional health: reconnecting them with family they left behind. Refugees in Colorado can initiate a Family Tracing inquiry with the Red Cross to seek the whereabouts and try to re-establish communications with loved ones. Sometimes these are family members they last saw while at a refugee camp, while other times they are looking for closure on loved ones who disappeared during violence in their country.

“They have experienced so much loss and so much trauma. Being able to get back in touch with far-distant family or find out what happened to a loved one provides some peace of mind,” said Tim Bothe, International Services Manager for the Red Cross of Colorado and Wyoming.

The public is invited to attend the Lunch And Learn presentation featuring Poole and Setu Nepal. The event is from noon-1 p.m., Wednesday, April 15. Please click here to RSVP:

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