Much of what I heard at the Inheriting Genocide symposium resonated with my own experiences working at PTV with men and women seeking asylum in the United States after escaping prison, torture, and the threat of death in their countries of origin. What happens once you think you’re safe?
The people I work with face, as Holocaust and Genocide survivors have faced before them, the challenge of “surviving survival”. After the dangers of war and violence and perilous journeys, your place of refuge turns out to be where you have no papers, no work, no roof over your head, a language you don’t speak, and constant worry or grief over family and friends dead or left behind.
Among all the losses, after much betrayal, abuse, and exploitation, you have lost the ability to trust.
Many asylum seekers here in California still live in fear. They fear ICE. They fear there are government spies living among other immigrants from their country. Political activists and members of the LGBTQ community, criminalized in their countries of origin, fear retaliation against their families back home if their identities become known. In a very profound way, many still remain in hiding.
And so, overcoming isolation and repairing social bonds is also a priority.
In Los Angeles, Holocaust survivors have their own social club, Café Europa. At PTV, I facilitate writing and arts workshops. People get to express themselves while at the same time, creative projects help them regain the compromised ability to focus and concentrate. But I think more meaningful has been the weekly Resilience group of conversation, storytelling, theater games, laughter and song. Our group offers more than peer support. Real friendships are forged. I am constantly inspired and amazed: people who’ve endured so much and have so little are unstinting in their generosity to one another.
At the same time, a frequent complaint is that it’s so hard to meet Americans. But when I take asylum seekers to social occasions or on field trips, they often freeze when white Americans try to engage them in conversation. They don’t want to talk about where they are from, what happened to them, and how and why they arrived in California. Someone hears an accent and asks “Where are you from?” and the question feels like a threat. So I try to prepare my brothers and sisters for a richer social life through roleplay. People practice telling only what they are comfortable saying. They learn to turn the questions back on the Americans and get them talking about themselves. For example: “I’m from Uganda. How about you? Have you always lived in California?”
There are often other barriers to social life. For Holocaust survivors who are now elderly and frail, it’s almost impossible to make it over to Café Europa. Home visits provide at least some contact with the outside world. Clinician Sheila Moore suggests using technology so that people can join programs without being physically present—an approach worth exploring for ImaginAction and other service providers as refugees and asylum seekers also face multiple obstacles to participation.
One of our PTV brothers was hospitalized, alone and afraid, after injuries sustained during torture took a turn for the worse. The hospital agreed to ignore the 2-visitors-at-a-time rule. The entire Resilience group showed up and we held our weekly gathering squeezed into his room, around his bed.
Our family suffered another blow this year. People were devastated when a transgender PTV sister who arrived in this country believing she would be safe was instead brutally murdered. We attended vigils for her and, for the PTV scrapbook in which family members create pages to represent their identities, dreams, and life philosophies, the group created a page to mourn for Viccky who had not had the chance to create her own.
All survivors need to mourn their losses.
Till the next installment,