Journey to America: The Value of Empathy in a Dangerous World

By Leigh Wayna, Clinical Care Manager at Behavioral Health Professionals, Inc., Detroit, MI

On November 13, 2015 several orchestrated attacks occurred in Paris, France.  Social media news feeds exploded with “Pray for Paris” and other such messages as the world reacted to the tragedy.  Mothers hugged their babies tighter that night, imagining how they might feel if some unspeakable thing occurred in their own hometown, imagining what it might feel like to have to use their own bodies to shield their children from a terrorist’s gun or bomb.  Fearing the monsters who would carry out such an attack.

With the news that one of the suspected gunmen had come to France with a stolen Syrian Passport, using a group of refugees as his cover for entering the country, people all over the world quickly became divided into two camps:  Help the refugees flee the evils that are happening in their countries, or shut our borders and baton down the hatches.  Social media again saw a major uptick in discussion over the politics behind each choice.  Conversations became heated and anger rose on both sides of the argument.  The word refugee was typed millions of times and I think that as our fingers hit those keys, many people lost sight of what a refugee actually IS.  As I began to think about that, I also began to wonder, what must it be like to be in those shoes?

Can You Imagine?

Imagine for a moment not being allowed to speak out or have an opinion in your country.  A right we Americans hold dear, freedom of speech, is not afforded to everyone.  Imagine not being allowed to have a democratic process or the ability to have a say in how your country is run.  Then imagine being arrested and tortured for disagreeing with the government.  Would you join rebel forces as they rose up against such abuses?  Imagine watching as the country was torn in two, becoming a violent, torturous place no matter which side you were on.

Try to imagine what living in a country that is in the throes of a four year long civil war might be like.  How might it feel to see 90,000 of your neighbors die in the streets and neighborhoods?  Now try to imagine if that number doubled?  What if it tripled?  What if you had to watch as 250,000 of your neighbors, friends, family and countrymen died fighting this civil war?  Besides the death toll, imagine if that many people were tortured, raped, kidnapped, bombed, and burned on the street outside of your home.  I’d also like you to think about what it might be like to fear that you would be number 250,001.

Would your day to day life be different from the one you live now?  How would you run errands, go to the grocery store, and drop your children off at school with the knowledge that soldiers, rebels and groups of religious extremists with guns and bombs were in the streets, killing, raping and torturing innocent civilians, intent upon “making a point”?  I’m positive I would not be able to leave my home or let my child out of my sight if I lived within these conditions.

What if someone told you they had a way out, and they could get you to someplace safe, but the journey to get there might be just as dangerous as staying right where you were?  Would you load your family onto a small rubber raft filled past maximum capacity and set out on an open sea to battle storms, sharks, sunstroke, starvation, dehydration and possible drowning if it meant you could leave a place where torture, murder, death and dismemberment were daily occurrences?  Would the fact that small children had recently been reported to be washing up on beaches after having drowned while trying to make the same journey change your answer?  Or would you chance it anyway?  I’d like you to think about what it might be like to have to decide between that raft on the treacherous sea and the risk of being murdered or tortured.

Once you decided you were getting on that raft, do you think it would be terrifying and heart wrenching to have to leave all of your belongings, your home, your surviving family and friends, and your entire life behind?  Would you grieve the life you had once lived?

Imagine you’ve safely arrived at your destination, a small miracle in itself.  You’ve arrived in a new country, a place you hope will be a new starting point for you.  You don’t know the language or the customs, you don’t have stable housing or employment and you have no idea what your “next step” should be.  How would you feel if the citizens of that new place hated you?  What if they attacked you while you were picking your child up from his or her new school, pulling off your cultural garments and hurling racial slurs at you, (as recently happened in Toronto)?  Perhaps you are also told you will be required to register as a refugee, carry a special ID card, and submit to monitoring.

You are finally safe, but the trials are far from over.

The realities of life as a refugee

Now that you are solidly in the shoes of a Syrian refugee, I want you to try to understand how navigating this new daily life would look.  I want you to try to think about what finding a home, getting a job, raising children and being a member of a brand new society might be like.  I can truthfully say I don’t think I have even a fraction of the emotional fortitude necessary to walk in those shoes.  Yet, more than 4 million people who have fled Syria, most of them women and children, are walking in those shoes right now.  A large portion of those people will have to struggle with mental health conditions such as Major Depression, Dysthymia, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Phobia, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and alcohol or other drug dependence.  Can you guess what it might be like to go through all of this only to then have to seek treatment for mental health conditions, issues that you’ve developed during your traumatic experiences?  It sounds a lot like pouring salt in ones wounds.

The statistics are eye opening.  According to a study done by Catalina López-Quintero in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Michigan State University, one in three refugees in the US has suffered at least one of the mental health disorders I listed above, most commonly suffering from major depression or PTSD.  Also, compared to the general United States population, refugees were 2-3 times more likely to have experienced an anxiety disorder.

The good news is that there are ways we can help.  There are multiple community agencies that offer mental health and social services, and many are funded by federal programs or grants making them free or low cost options for people seeking services.  In Wayne County, Michigan, you can visit the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority webpage   to explore available services.  Other Michigan counties offer similar services.  You can visit the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services (MDHHS) website  for more information.

Another great resource is The Refugee Assistance Program, a federally funded program that helps refugees become self-sufficient after their relocation.  Temporary cash assistance is available for up to eight months after arrival to eligible refugees who don’t qualify for cash assistance through TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), SSI or Medicaid.  The program also offers employment services, health screenings and foster care services to unaccompanied minors.  There is a wealth of information and links to resources available on MSHHS’s Refugee Assistance site.

Let empathy be your guide

All in all, it boils down to compassion and empathy.  When you understand and feel another’s feelings for yourself, you have empathy. Empathy is typically considered a positive character trait that people have to varying degrees.  If each of us took a few moments to truly empathize with the Syrian refugees, who have had their entire lives quite literally torn apart at the seams, I think we would be able to find quite a bit more compassion in our hearts and we may be more willing to work on solutions rather than choosing to turn our backs on other human beings who need us.



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About Leigh Wayna

Leigh Wayna is a Clinical Care Manager at Carelink, one of the premier Managed Care Provider Networks in Wayne County, Michigan.  She has spent the first 10 years of her career working with Severe and Persistently Mental Ill Adults and Children both in direct service as a Crisis Stabilization Therapist, Partial Hospital Therapist, and Hospital Social Worker, as well as in indirect service in her current position.   Leigh has focused much of her work on how homelessness and substance abuse effect mental illness, support networks, family dynamics and the individual as a whole and on ways to improve her clients basic needs in order to improve upon what successes they are able to gain from treatment.

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