The current crisis in Ukraine is described as one of the greatest and fastest evolving humanitarian crises since the Second World War in Europe. It currently counts 1 million displaced persons who left Ukraine in matter of a few days. Most of these people are mothers and children. How can one help refugees?
The obvious answer is to make their path safe and provide for their immediate needs such as shelter, water, food, clothing, and sanitation. There are several aid agencies operating close to the borders. Financial aid to these agencies, through the Red Cross or the UN World Food Program, and others ensures that more people can receive the essentials they require in a timely manner. In addition to organizations, individual citizens have offered to help with their means. We have seen images of people in Poland and Hungary welcoming refugees at the border crossings and providing transportation and temporary accommodation. The European Union opened its door to refugees. Canada pledged to welcome any number of people fleeing from the war in Ukraine.
As the war drags on and the days are passing, more and more people are expected to cross the border and those receiving them have to be prepared to tend those who have been exposed to combat, wounded, and traumatized. Professionals with training in this field can access several guidelines for disaster mental health and many are accessible to anyone through the newly created depository of articles “For Each Other” at www.foreachother.at.
Here, I would like to mention a few considerations from personal experience that may be helpful for understanding the experience of being a “displaced person,” myself having had this experience thirty years ago. From now, on, I will refer to the fact of having to flee from a war situation or a conflict situation leaving behind one’s residence and seeking refuge elsewhere, usually in another country as a person who has been displaced and seeking refuge.
What do we need to keep in mind about a person who has been displaced? I will describe a few general considerations:
• Decisions had to be made at the spur of the moment or in very short time to leave
• The first consideration was to get children, the elderly and vulnerable individuals to a place of physical safety
• Minimal essential personal belongings were possible to carry from home
• The path was not exactly planned out and the details to the destination often unknown
• One counts on help from others and good luck to make it there
• The warmth of home is still in every piece of clothing, every piece of food or drop of water that one has
• One knows that going back is not an option, therefore the only way to advance is to look forward
* Many others join the same path. Crowds form and one is pressed. One hears the cries and laments of others. Sheds warm tears.
• Keep what is most essential in focus: a child. Every effort is worth saving this life.
• One discovers strength that one has not had before. Determination and courage flow to the person, as well as there is a flow of adrenaline. Heart palpitations, intense emotions are common.
• The future calls and one listens to one’s conscience. It nudges to not to give up. Keep going.
• One finds oneself in unfamiliar surroundings, surrounded by strangers. One implores that they are friendly.
• Even though one is in a new place, one has the feeling, one is still the same person.
• Nature is grounding. So is the pumping of the heart, the warmth, and the breath of a child.
• Memories are compressed, time seems altered.
• One’s heart clings to loved ones. In spirit, one is with them for brief moments at a time.
• Heartache. Warm tears running down the cheeks.
• Language that one des not speak. Words want to come but they do not surface. They are swallowed up by tears.
• Communication is any ways one can.
• One is still the same person. And one searches for the eyes of the other, notices their gestures, even tiniest forms of expression. One reads eyes, hands, and lips. Body language.
• One looks down. The pain in the eyes is hidden.
• One needs to ask. One needs to beg. One needs to explain.
• One needs to remain hopeful. Everything seems to be possible, yet the nothing can be taken for granted.
• Goodness has no boundaries.
• There are those willing to aid. There is a smile. A gentle encouragement. There is warm food. Water. A place to rest.
• A quick prayer is said.
• Thanking from the bottom of the heart. Gratitude and joy. Inside is restlessness and hesitancy. Outside it is words of thanks.
• The cell phone. The connections. The rest of the family. How can one reach them? Are they alive? Worries. Sleepless nights. Nightmares.
• A kiss for the child. It was all worth it. Find a soft toy. Give a hug. Caress the face.
• Tomorrow will be better. Life can be hard. Very hard. But it can make one stronger for the challenges ahead.
• For this young life. It is worth it. For a better life, its worth it.
* Keep going. Keep being you. Always keep going. Never give up.
I was told that once I am an immigrant, I will always be an immigrant. I did not understand these words at the time. Later, I learned that immigrants and refugees pass through several stages and phases in a process of “assimilation and accommodation,” as it was called in those days, and “adaptation” to their new host country. They pass from the ‘honeymoon stage” full of enthusiasm and hope to “disillusionment” and experiencing obstacles and hindrances. They may succumb to depression and despair as difficulties and challenges mount, and they do not have the means to effect change, to feel in control of their lives. They may then pass to a stage of gaining skills and abilities and eventually, come to be “well functioning” members of their society, considering themselves to be “experts” in both their original culture and their new environment.
I would like to complement this picture by adding what keeps displaced persons strong and resilient to withstand despair.
• Each time one sees a displaced person, one sees not a victim, but a survivor.
• A person of hope, who had strength to listen to their conscience and follow its dictates.
• A person who is not equal to hat they have, which may be very little. A person who is.
• A person with an indestructible spirit.
• A person capable of sacrifice.
• A person with emotions and feelings but not equal to emotions and feelings.
• A person with thoughts and convictions
• A person with a sense of values and justice
• A loving person whose heart reaches out to those left behind
• A caring person who found themselves in situations that many of their fellow men/women in the world may have never experienced and hopefully may never have to experience
• A professional, a mother, a father, a sister, a child, who is someone loved and awaited
• A person who seems to be alone but is never alone
• A person who may look forsaken but represents the wounds of humanity
• A person who may look deficient in expression, speech, language, writing, spelling and many other things, but has a heart in flames for the just cause
• A person who may be easy to reject, look down upon, distance oneself from, in order to escape from facing one’s own fears, but ignoring the most important: what is right and good and noble about being a displaced person
• A person with dignity that is often tested
• A person with dignity that is unconditional
* A person with hopes, skills, ideas, ideals and dreams
• A person who represents the hope of the world for peace.
Therefore, in treating a displaced person, the main thing is to do it with humility and sincerity, with humanness, simplicity, and honesty. The touch of humanity, such as a smile, a gentle touch or encouraging word can make the sunshine appear behind the clouds. Tears of pain can turn to tears of healing a hope. Yes, displaced persons will have deep emotions and many emotions. They will express a range of them if allowed. One does not need to be afraid of these emotions. They are not intended toward the helper, although at times they may seem like it. They are intended towards the wrongs, the injustices and the incorrectness that displaced persons are keenly aware of. Sometimes these emotions will subside over time, although they may be easily triggered by subsequent challenging events.
Symptoms of post traumatic stress, anxiety and depression may be experienced by those who have been exposed to violence and of curse this applies to those who have witnessed torture, loss of life, and cruelty. With insight into the body’s reactions to intense and prolonged toxic stress, one can build up one’s resources for coping. Beyond that, one can get in touch with one’s inner strength. With benevolence and support, the emotional wounds can be compassionately cared for. Self awareness and self compassion can gradually allow to reconnect with sources of hope and realistic optimism. One can at this point, be able to see beyond the concrete situation and connect oneself with universal values. There is, in a way, a space crated to consciously affirm what deep inside one always knew and what one was acting according to without it being explicitly stated.
Reinforcing what is good and positive, who one is beyond one’s means, goes beyond providing basic needs and reaffirms displaced persons in their sense of value and dignity. Finally, displaced persons can see themselves as not just a person who was forced to leave their home because their lives were in danger, but a person who was called by life to now become a citizen of the world and to rise above traditional ways of living, being, and doing things, to a new level of living, being and doing things, or better to say, a new dimension of living, being, and doing things, not just for the sake of the self, but for the sake of the world.
Therefore, it is important to reiterate and to make such persons to feel that they are of value, they are loved, they are good for something, they matter, and they are awaited in the world.
Walking in the streets of my new country I often had the feeling of de-realization in the first years. It felt as if I was walking somewhere in my body, and I could see myself from the outside. I had a sense that I was present in spirit. I kept telling myself that I was strong in my spirit, even if my spirit was invisible. I also told myself that a power much greater than myself is protecting me. Even though I could barely speak any English, was aware that my spirit was entirely healthy. My mind was, at that time, quickly running back and forth between attempting to retrieve the right English word for the one that came to mind in Hungarian. Later, the German and the English started to get mixed. Finally, I had some dreams in English, but most nightmares in Hungarian, my mother tongue.
Language is one form of expression. The language of the heart is another. It is the language of the heart that understands the other, without words needed to be said.
Therefore, for those who accept a refugee, or who aid a refugee, I would like to add a few more points:
• Your presence matters. It was saving and healing. This will never be forgotten.
• None of your good words, good deeds will go unnoticed.
• None of your good actions can be removed from this world.
• You are a person of courage.
• You do not need to be perfect. In your attempts to help, there will be challenges. There will be sorrows. There will be thigs you wish you could do more, different.
• You will feel the emotions of pain, grief, and sorrow if you are close to a person who suffers.
• Do not let this break you down. You are not the cause of the pain if you are there to genuinely offer your best.
• People who reveal to you their weakness trust that you are strong enough to handle it. They feel safe with you to share.
• Be clear on what you can offer and what is beyond your limits. This will help to problem solve.
• Be prepared that not everyone in your neighborhood may see you with good eyes or praise your actions. The indifference of others will hurt your heart to the core.
• Remain steadfast and entrust the person in your care with you to the Providence.
• Respect their choices and decisions.
* Trust their inner strength
• Accept that they may not be in the position even to thank you or show gratitude. Nevertheless, your reward is eternal.
• Be creative, flexible, and open to life.
• Be open to learning. Helping someone else builds you up as much as it can save the life of someone or make it more peaceful and dignified.
• Be grateful to life that you can be in this position.
• Offer grace for every way you can serve.
In conclusion, those who are helped and those who are helping are accomplishing a valuable mission together that without one or the other would not have been possible. As time passes, those who are helped and those who helped are both stronger, wiser, and better able to reach out to others who may tend a hand for help.
This is how a network of good deeds generates further good and makes our world a friendlier and more humane place to be. This is how, from a mustard seed, a huge tree can grow, and it can be tall enough so that all the birds of the sky can come and find rest on its branches, and shelter amongst its leaves. Love and care make it possible for such tree to grow.