The Strength in What Remains

This post was originally published on Sailesh Naidu’s blog, Migration Persuasions.

It was particularly gray and rainy Saturday afternoon when I met my friend and his mother for coffee and kuchen at a nice little bistro in the West Berlin neighborhood of Charlottenburg.  I had not seen my friend, who is German by birth, for a few years now and I just happened to catch him and his mother traveling through Berlin.  We sat there catching up as old friends do while my friends’ mother would chime every now and again, talking about the types of tea she liked, asking about my work, and telling me about her upcoming trip to her timeshare in Fort Meyers, Florida. Being a little curious I asked more about where she grew up in Germany and she told me about her quaint little city in northern Germany, how she grew up going to school, how her city was famous for making U-Boats, how she sat for weeks on end in a bomb shelter as the Allies invaded, and how when she came back to her city it was no longer there. It struck me a little funny that a woman who grew up in a town in northern Germany where they once made U-Boats now owned a timeshare in Florida, but even more so how as we sat in the relative comfort of our cafe in Charlottenburg, less than a living generation ago Europe was a continent traumatized by war.

According to a recent UNICEF report children now make up more than half of the world’s refugee population. The report highlights that close to 50 million children have migrated to another country or have been displaced internally in their own countries with more than half (28 million) being forced to flee because of conflict. The numbers are telling as it elucidates that not only is the refugee population much younger than the overall migrant population but that refugee children are more susceptible to human trafficking, sexual slavery, labor abuses, and exploitation. In Germany alone by January 2016 over 60,000 children and adolescents entered the country without a parent or guardian.

Those who make it to safer countries to declare asylum by themselves or with their families have faced levels of stress and trauma during primary development stages of their lives that will impact them for years to come.  The effects of early childhood and adolescent trauma have been well documented, particularly when it comes to refugees. In addition, combined with traumatic experiences is the interruption in formal education which can cause gaps in age appropriate cognitive and social acculturation. From rapid hair loss, PTSD, erratic sleep patterns, hypertension, social isolation, or in some extreme circumstances reenacting the trauma itself refugee youth need particular support structures to enable them to fully acclimate and adjust to living in a new circumstance, even if that circumstance is as temporary as a camp with no final destination.

The impacts of this are not just felt by the refugee youth themselves.  Youth who have experienced trauma and lack consistent safe spaces in their lives are more susceptible to recruitment by extremist organizations and the lack of formal schooling leaves them without the necessary skills to find work in labor markets.  With girls they are more likely to engage in sexual work, be married as a child, or begin having children at an early age.

Image: Alice Young and Kasandra Kachakji

With all that refugee youth have faced in their journey there is a strength in what remains. Built into the process that brought refugee youth to where they are is also an inherent resilience that can not be ignored.  A gap in formal schooling does not mean that the child was left with nothing to do, but rather an unrecognized experience that allowed them to survive the events around them to make it to better shores.  Some models have shown that programs that use targeted interventions, have community support, and rely on the fundamental assets that refugee youth bring to the table are largely successful in intervening with the effects of pre and post migratory stress.  There is a dire need to build the capacity of schools and organizations working with refugee youth to understand what trauma looks like and how to create intervention strategies that can enable refugee youth to thrive building upon the assets they are bringing to the table.

Teachers, school-based staff, and organizations need proper training and support when identifying and supporting youth are displaying systems of trauma. Often time teachers in resettlement contexts or in refugee camps have students who display signs of trauma but have no real intervention strategy in place at the school level to support youth who are trying to process traumatic events.  School-based models and planning have be proven successful in helping students adjust to new environments while providing safe spaces for them to feel like they belong.  On the classroom level, training teachers on how to create culturally and socially inclusive classrooms is important to develop an environment where all students can succeed and feel safe.  The International Rescue Committee’s Safe and Healing Classroom approach which has largely been used is post-conflict environments can help teachers understand what student need to have a sense of belonging and place in a new environment while helping all students grow their social and emotional skills at the classroom level.

Image: PBS

In a resettlement context families who arrive together need support understanding how they can support their children and take an active role in their child’s education and recovery.  Schools and organization can help by creating cultural sensitive environments in their school.  For example, welcome signs in multiple languages, providing translation during meetings and creating target outreach strategies that help reach these populations.  Moreover, both in the resettlement and in camps there needs to be better evidence base that not only studies the psychosocial needs of refugees who have experienced trauma but also that studies resiliency and the ways they can thrive.  Mercy Corps in partnership with Yale University is doing a large scale study in Jordan around measuring the health and wellbeing impacts of psychosocial interventions among refugee youth.  As resettlement through Europe grows, there needs to be more studies like these to analyze what particular interventions can be effective in various settings.

My friend’s mother grew up in a country ravaged by war and so did all of Europe.  In less than her lifetime Europe was able to rebuild, and so was she.  I can’t doubt that it was hard and the struggle she had to go through in order to find a way to live a meaningful life, but she did.  There is hope for today’s generation, what they need is not to be seen as victims but to understand their own strength and power.  We as practitioners merely need to support that process and build upon the strength in what remains.

Sailesh Naidu has worked in the humanitarian and public policy sector for over ten years. He is currently an Alexander Von Humboldt German Chancellor’s Fellow based in Berlin researching the social inclusion of refugee youth. His research is hosted at FEZ-Berlin and is funded through the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs.