San Diego, CA – If you are a Star Wars fan, then you might remember the early scene in A New Hope, in which Death Star Commander, Grand Moff Tarkin, ruthlessly destroys Princess Leia’s home planet of Alderaan as a part of a ploy to incite fear and discourage any attempts to rebel against the Empire. Regardless of the fact that millions of innocent civilians died on Alderaan, Tarkin orders its destruction essentially to send a message – follow the Empire command or die.
You might also recall the Imperial Stormtroopers murder Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle and burn their farm. If Luke had been at home at the time of the raid, he would have suffered the same fate. Having lost his family and his home, Luke has no choice but to leave his home planet behind.
Like Luke and Leia, most refugees have lost their homes and their families, often having witnessed and experienced violence. Like Leia, some people’s families might be targeted for speaking out against the current regime. Like Luke, innocent civilians may have lost family members in tragic and traumatic ways. Sometimes, staying behind means guaranteed death. Seeking safety and refuge may be some people’s only chance for survival.
When my family and I moved to United States as refugees, I was both relieved and terrified. Relieved because at the time, we didn’t have to hide or worry about violence, persecution, or murder. Terrified because I did not know what to expect from my new environment.
Moving to a new house or a new school can be stressful enough. Moving across the world with only two allowed bags can feel as if you have been erased. Between having no food, no guaranteed shelter, having no English language experience, and being from another culture presents its own barriers. However, once the basic biological needs of food, shelter, and safety can be established, the biggest issues that many refugee families face, have to do with mental health struggles.
History of life-threatening violence, prejudice, and the (often) sudden displacement can lead to a later development of depression, anxiety, or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). To make matters worse, many refugees may lack the language skills necessary to ask for help and may not know how to receive the support they need. Many are shamed and harassed for struggling to speak English or for speaking their own language to one another. Such aggression and bullying can severely worsen one’s mental health challenges, especially when they are added to the horrific traumatic experiences the refugees may have already faced in their country of origin.
I remember waiting for a slice of pizza I ordered, all I was able to afford, and an older teenage girl, who was standing in line in front of me, yelling at me for staring at her. She threatened to beat me up and kill me. Although I understood her words, at 12, having just recently moved to the US, I did not have the words to be able to tell her that I was actually just admiring her dog. Her yelling brought back the flashbacks of the threats I faced in my home country, of what my family and I escaped from.
My experience is not unique and sadly, many refugee families might experience further trauma and abuse after immigrating. Here are ways in which you can help:
Be kind. It seems simple but it’s not. A small act of kindness, a friendly gesture or a smile can make a person feel more welcome and can sometimes even save a life.
Offer to show someone around. Getting around in another country with a language barrier can be extremely challenging. Offering to show someone how to get to their destination can be extremely helpful and meaningful for the newly resettled refugee families.
Conversation. When speaking to someone who does not speak your language, see if you can use a translation app to help you better engage in a conversation.
Inclusion. Being invited to events and hangouts can help refugees to feel more accepted and being able to talk about their culture can help them feel more understood.
Resources. If anyone you know is struggling to find mental health resources, check out NAMI or Psychology Today. For mental health crisis management, text the Crisis Text Line: 741-741 or for mental health emergencies call 911.