If their homeland had been a safe place to live, they wouldn’t have become refugees

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Part 1 of this series describes the pervasiveness and accompanying symptoms of unresolved trauma for refugees. Click here to read Part 2 that outlines some of the challenges faced by refugees who need help in order to come to terms with the many terrifying experiences in their life histories. Part 3 addresses the necessity of using body-centered methods for trauma recovery and why they are particularly well-suited for working with refugee populations.


If their homeland had been a safe place to live, they wouldn’t have become refugees.

Often there is additional hardship endured when seeking to obtain refugee status, and then for those who arrive in the U.S., the culture shock is significant.

City Heights in San Diego is one of the areas where many refugees wind up. There are large numbers of people who have survived atrocities, lost everything familiar to them, are unsure of where the rest of their family is. Sometimes they are left wondering if family and friends are alive or dead, and if living, are they safe?

Refugees are not given a lot of time here to get on their feet.  They have to get-up-to-speed quickly in English fluency, bolster their level of education, and find a way to make a living. All the while they must take care of their family members that are likewise making the adjustment. Often that includes several young children who need to learn how to be successful in school.

We know that refugees suffer from very high rates of having endured terrifying experiences and lingering symptoms of traumatization.  Our recent survey to determine the rate of PTSD among East African refugees in San Diego indicated:

  • 83% have endured traumatic experiences (e.g. forced evacuation, lack of food, water, shelter, access to medical care, violence, kidnapping, etc.)
  • 85% are currently suffering from symptoms of trauma, ranging from mild to severe (e.g. nightmares, physical pain, recurrent thoughts of terrifying events, etc.)

Common symptoms of trauma include bouts of anxiety and depression, feeling easily startled, insomnia, nightmares, quick-temperedness, and difficulty concentrating. Sometimes events of the past remain persistent intrusive thoughts. For some a sense of feeling spacey (i.e. dissociation) makes things feel not quite fully real.

A parent distracted by intrusive thoughts, struggling with the extreme stress of living in a completely different place, trying to learn the language and get a job, is often not able to be as emotionally available to their children as they need. Trauma is trans-generational. Children are at risk even if they did not experience trauma firsthand.

The human body registers everything that occurs to it, both physically and neurologically. And if we do not resolve trauma all it can do is to continue to wear us down over life psychologically, emotionally and physically.
– David Berceli, PhD

Unresolved trauma takes a heavy toll on relationships. It can add difficulty to finding success in educational and employment settings. Beyond emotional suffering, it can also detract from physical health.

When Post-Trauma symptoms are not attended to, secondary issues can develop.

Substance abuse and domestic violence are two examples of what can result. Children may develop behavior problems or have trouble learning in school. Even the sense of ‘community’ may suffer as conflicts become more difficult to resolve when tempers are quick to flare and suspiciousness of one another has increased.

Without help, symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress can be very enduring over time. Adults suffer, children suffer, families suffer, and ultimately, the entire community suffers.

Then it continues into the next generation.

What can we do to help with this?  How do we interrupt the cycle?

Read more about Phase 2 of Trauma Recovery for Refugees, Educating Refugee Leaders about Trauma, PTSD and Recovery and find out how you can help us make it a reality.

* * *

More than 80% of refugees in San Diego suffer from symptoms of trauma & PTSD

Phase 2: Educating Refugee Leaders About Trauma, PTSD and Recovery

What can we do to help?


Barbara English is a licensed Marriage Family Therapist (LMFT) and a Certified Bioenergetic Therapist (CBT) with over 20 years of experience. She is the Executive Director of Living Ubuntu, a non‐profit organization founded in response to her concern about the effects of mass trauma on populations around the globe. She is also a 2009 Carl Wilkens Fellow.

[Ubuntu] n.
Every human being truly becomes a human by means of relationships with other human being.

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2 thoughts on “If their homeland had been a safe place to live, they wouldn’t have become refugees

  1. Pingback: If their homeland had been a safe place to live, they wouldn’t have become refugees. (Part 2) | Living Ubuntu Blog

  2. Pingback: If their homeland had been a safe place to live, they wouldn’t have become refugees. (Part 3) | Living Ubuntu Blog

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