“I never think in terms of crowds in general but in terms of persons. Were I to think about crowds, I would never begin anything. It is the person that matters. I believe in person-to-person encounters” Mother Theresa, Heart of Joy.
When the current refugee crisis is over. When the children, the 50% of the almost 60 million forcibly displaced people around the world are adults in leadership positions. When the next generation of refugees become transnational and global citizens because they identify culturally with the countries of their refuge and affectively with the lands and cultures of their origins. What will they think and feel about the worlds they encountered between now and then? What will they say about how they’ve been treated? What will their worldview on humanity be? And how will that impact how they lead and love in the world?
When I think about the state of the world in our times, I feel a downward pull into the quicksand of despondency and fear. Yet questions about the future and the reminder that we must be present and attentive in our response to the current crisis pulls me up. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, 1 in every 122 persons in the world are refugees, seeking asylum or internally displaced. This is a whole generation of people impacted, and in time, we will certainly see cohort effects, the similarities and differences in individuals of a generation as a result of historical events. It is crucial to remember that how we treat those seeking refuge today, will impact our collective future and the next generations. I know this to be true, because I have also been a refugee and I know that that experience has fundamentally shaped many of my life choices and certainly my view on humanity.
There is nothing pleasant in the refugee sojourn. In my past research and interviews with people who have had war experiences, they, to a person, expressed that they do not wish the experience on an enemy. And in spite of the adversity and struggle of the process, it is precisely their desire to remove this suffering from others that has them working in transformational leadership spaces and places, doing their best to build stronger human values, relationships and communities, and generally create a more humane and just world. They are authors, community activists, speakers, leaders in social work and education – world changers each one. This is a phenomenon called posttraumatic growth, the possibility of attaining transformational growth as a result of the struggle with significant trauma, in this case war.
My deepest hope is that every refugee would attain this level of posttrauma recovery and growth, but research and common sense tells us that this is not the case for all. However, what IS possible is for all of us to receive, support and create the environment and opportunities for refugees to bounce back from their experiences and thrive, as opposed to becoming stuck in posttraumatic stress disorders and continued trauma and re-traumatizations in their post-war lives. Each one of us can help shape a refugee’s experience and post-trauma journey. I could give you the research based list and the how-tos, but you already know what matters. It’s in our smiles, in our capacity to love these our new neighbours, it’s in every interaction and the impressions we leave and evoke for every refugee we meet and how we teach our children to do the same. We know already, that each one that receives affirmation, love and support, will all things being equal, pay it forward in their own relationships and interactions. And when 50 years from today this refugee neighbour is now setting policies that affects all our children, it will be these experiences of humanity that will help them make the right decisions.
So when the dark news of ongoing conflicts and terrorist attacks threaten to overwhelm and immobilize, let’s remember we CAN do something. While we must do what we can at every level to prevent wars and violent conflicts in the first place, we can in the meantime, touch each refugee we encounter. Our simplest actions – a smile, a respectful conversation, help with directions, you name it – might be the difference that propels them past trauma, into transformation.
For more on posttraumatic growth (PTG), listen to my podcast discussion here in relation to the recent ebola crisis and response.
See also the posttraumatic growth research group website.