The world’s refugee problem continues to grow. As civilians are no longer off limits in today’s armed conflicts, they are fleeing their homes in droves and we can barely imagine how difficult their plight is.
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast we talk to Kenneth Miller, who has devoted his life to tending to the psychological needs of refugees throughout the world. He notes that social media makes us more aware than ever of their plight but it also fuels greater fear and misunderstanding. Miller points out the important distinction between refugees and immigrants and reminds us that unlike immigrants, who make a choice, refugees can’t stay in their homeland without being subjected to violence or even death.
While they are eyed with suspicion, data indicate that refugees can be a boon to their new home countries. Statistics show that the crime rate among refugees in the US and in Germany is far lower than that of the general population.To date, the number of Americans killed by refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or any of the seven countries covered by President Donald Trump’s executive order restricting travel is exactly zero!
And while they often arrive suffering from grief, depression and trauma, new therapies and welcoming communities have been the most healing.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy, I’m Jeff Schechtman.
When we talk about the refugee crisis in Syria, we’re really only talking about a small fraction of the world’s refugees. Literally hundreds of millions of people throughout the world are impacted by armed conflict and genocide. People in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Guatemala, Sri Lanka, and many more. It’s hard for most of us to even imagine what these people go through, and the grief, and trauma they face. In a time of asymmetrical warfare, they are the new face of war. We’re going to look at some of this today with my guest, Kenneth Miller. He’s an international expert on the impact of armed conflict on civilians. He’s a psychologist who’s been working with war affected communities as a researcher, clinician, and filmmaker. He’s a professor of clinical and community psychology, and he’s the author of a new book entitled, War Torn: Stories of Courage, Love, and Resilience. Kenneth Miller, welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Kenneth Miller: Thank you, Jeff. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
Schechtman: Tell us a little bit about how you got involved in this work with refugees initially.
Miller: I’ve always been interested in Latin American culture, and politics, and history, and one night when I was a graduate student in Michigan, I was studying clinical psychology, a couple came through town talking about this innovative expressive art intervention they developed in the highlands of Guatemala for families and children affected by the genocide that had happened there in the late ‘70s and on through the 1980s. And they were doing this really extraordinary work and I was so captivated. It’s kind of love at first sight. It didn’t involve a woman. It involved this remarkable way of working that brought together social justice and mental health work, really interesting cultural stuff, because these were Mayan Indians. And by the end of the week, I sat them down for about 24 hours and talked there, basically really listened for about the, you know, for 24 hours, everything they were doing and peppered them with questions. By the end of the weekend I was hooked, and I volunteered to go down to spend about a year and a half working on their project, and then bringing their work into the refugee camps just across the border of Mexico where Guatemalans had fled.
Schechtman: One of the things about talking about refugees and the stories that you write about in War Torn, and the scope of it is how big the problem is today, and how widespread throughout the world the refugee situation is.
Miller: It’s really extraordinary and, you know, one of the biggest shifts that’s happened in the last, really beginning with World War II, is that civilians have, are no longer off-limits, they are legally, but civilians have actually become the majority of those affected by armed conflict. It used to be much more, the soldiers, the combatants, that paid the price in physical and psychological injuries. But now you see upwards of 80-90% of victims of armed conflict, there are civilians, and often very intentionally. And that’s, that’s, you know, the recent crisis in Syria recent… I mean it’s going on six years now, has really brought this to the world’s attention, I think in the large part through profoundly powerful images that we see on YouTube and Facebook, and the front page of newspapers. You know, a child washed ashore off the coast of Greece, or Italy, and suddenly the reality of this refugee crisis becomes very real.
Schechtman: Why are we only seeing these images now? I mean certainly the opportunity for us to see them has been around for a long time.
Miller: I think the growth of social media has really transformed our access, because these things have been covered for a long time – images of Vietnam, you know, that powerful image of the girl running naked down the street after a napalm attack. But everyone, everyone’s online now, and people with their smart phones. I did a training for young Syrian journalists. I was down in southern Turkey near the border with Syria, and I was doing a training with journalists there who had come over from Syria – on how to interview trauma survivors and how to take care of themselves psychologically. And what I was really struck by is that they all pulled out these incredibly sophisticated smart phones, and they were capturing the war in real time, and uploading their images. And so we can know in a moment what’s going on in places that are pretty remote, and it’s quite profound. One of my favorite stores about that, in Libya when things really started to kick into high chaos in Libya some years ago, after Gaddafi was overthrown, a journalist was kidnapped and they didn’t remember to take her phone away, and she tweeted out something, like “kidnapped.” And within minutes, that message reached colleagues all over the world, and phone calls were made, and contacts were used, and a short while later she tweeted out, “free.” You know, I think social media has changed the whole landscape, but it also means, is that we’re much more aware of refugees, and it also has a dark side because all kinds of fear mongering, and conspiracy theories, also circulate on the Internet – so we have a fear of refugees now that is like some, it’s like nothing I’ve ever really seen before. I see it in Europe. I see it in America. And it’s quite powerful.
Schechtman: Talk a little bit about that fear and what underlies it. It’s interesting to think about the difference between immigrants and refugees, those that move across borders because they want to, because they have a choice, and those that essentially don’t.
Miller: I think that’s a really, really important difference, and it gets lost in the narrative about migrants. Refugees are people who are fleeing violence or persecution in their homeland and really can’t stay in their homeland, without a very real possibility of injury or death. The broader category of immigrants or migrants includes a whole lot of folks who are making a voluntary choice to seek a better life, better economic opportunities, better work options in another country. And those are quite different groups. And one of things that’s really interesting in a lot of talk about refugees and terrorism, and refugees and crime, Germany in Europe has taken in by far, by far the most refugees as any European country. And they’ve done a lot of research to look at refugees and crime. And what they found is that among refugees, the crime rate is actually dramatically lower than it is among native born Germans. Now that’s not necessarily true among migrants generally, if you look at economic migrants. But if you look specifically at refugees, Syrian refugees for example, have very low crime rates. And when they do commit crimes, if you ask most Germans though they might tell you that, well, the high rate of sex crimes, but in fact, actually, very, very low rate, much lower than among native born Germans. Most of their crimes are things like getting on the subway without a fee or a fare, because they can’t afford it. And the same research has been done in the U.S. You find that refugees in the U.S. have much lower crime rates than native born Americans. Now that’s not what we’re hearing from the current administration. It’s not what we hear in a lot of the popular narratives. I can tell you this, that refugees, and I include Muslim refugees, have killed exactly zero Americans in the U.S. since 9/11. Now doesn’t mean that, I think 94 people have been killed by, in terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11, by people who identify with extreme Islam or Islamist movements, but most of those folks are actually American citizens or legal residents. None of them are refugees. So this ban that we’ve got, wouldn’t have prevented any of those deaths.
Schechtman: What about resources, the resources that are directed to, national resources, economic resources, that are directed at refugees in the countries that they flee to?
Miller: One of the things we find is that refugees, when they are warmly welcomed, when they’re given a good reception, and they’re helped to make a successful adjustment to their host society, they tend to heal naturally from a lot of the grief, the depression, and trauma that they had brought with them from their experiences in their homeland. And they tend to be not only very law-abiding, but they tend to be really productive, hard-working, and there’s some pretty good data showing that they actually enrich the communities that they settle in. They open up businesses. They’re willing to take jobs that a lot of Americans don’t want to take. So those resources, the investment pays off. On the other hand, when we accept refugees, but we’re not willing to invest in helping them succeed, then you get marginalized communities. And anytime you have a marginalized community, you know, higher crime rates, and higher school failure, whatever. So we can have a, we can play a very big role in determining whether our investment in refugees is going to pay off or not.
Schechtman: Talk little bit about the trauma that refugees go through. I know it’s difficult to paint with broad brush, but in a general sense, what that experience is like, particularly those that wind up or go through refugee camps.
Miller: Yeah, I mean, so on the one hand we are resilient, that given supportive safe conditions a lot of people will heal. But not everyone does heal of course. So I directed a clinic for Bosnians for two years in Chicago, an elderly man, who was one of the most really traumatized people I ever worked with. And he had, he was stuck in his traumatic experiences. He had witnessed the killing of his brother. He had been beaten severely by Bosnian Serb soldiers, and then he had heard about, but not seen, just a brutal torture and execution of another brother who had been abducted by the soldiers. And for five years he had lived with nightmares and flashbacks and chronic anxiety and overwhelming grief, and he had kept all of this inside, kept it a secret, even tried to kill himself a couple of times. And he, you know, for about a year, he sat in therapy and he just didn’t even get better. He was on medication. We saw him, I saw him weekly in therapy, and then I tried this innovative treatment – it’s become quite popular now, and it’s got a good evidence-base, called EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy. I really don’t get how it works. I’ve been trained, I’ve used it. Sometimes it’s worked, sometimes it hasn’t. But it was the most extraordinary healing I’ve ever seen. In five weeks of treatment with the EMDR, and his trauma was about 80% resolved, his depression had lifted. This shaking, frightened, anxious man, was sleeping without medication or nightmares, and was healing. So refugee trauma is real. I’ve seen it in kids I’ve worked with. I see it in kids I work with now and in their parents, but there are lots of ways of helping people heal, and that’s a lot of the work that I do now. We train local community members in Lebanon, or Jordan, in methods helping people heal. And the really exciting discovery of the last 10 years is that you don’t need an advanced professional degree in a mental health field to be a good healer, or a good helper. There’s a growing body of evidence that you can train local community members in trauma treatment methods, and a variety of healing methods, and they can be really surprisingly effective at helping people get through the trauma they suffered.
Schechtman: Tell us a little bit about what’s being done to address the growing number of refugees, what’s being done with respect to refugee groups, the UN, other NGOs, to look at and address these issues.
Miller: People are at a loss about what to do. They’re really at a loss. The European Union recently made a deal with Turkey, to give Turkey, you know, lots of funding resources to keep and take back refugees that had come into Europe. But that’s not doing anything to stop the source of the problem, which is refugees are fleeing because there are just horrific, chronic, protracted wars in their countries of origin – Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and on and on.
Schechtman: Does where the refugees wind up really make a difference in how they heal, how they adjust, how they reintegrate?
Miller: It does make a difference. I mean, what I see in the U.S. is that refugees once they’re admitted… Actually, I just want to add one thing about that. You know there’s been all this talk about extreme vetting and, you know, it’s an interesting notion. I think what few Americans realize is that we do extreme vetting. We’ve been doing it for years. It is enormously difficult to get refugee status and get into the United States. It takes an average of a year and a half, to two years, and the amount of vetting that people go through to arrive in the United States is incredible. So this notion that somehow refugees are just flocking in…. Also, when you look at the number of Syrians that the U.S. has taken, you compare it to a country like Germany, it pales in comparison. A couple of years ago, I think we took in 12,500, 13,000; while Germany took in a half million. So back to your question, refugees are extraordinarily resilient people, and it’s one of the things I learned, and have been most impressed by – no matter where they are initially resettled, refugees will tend to move to other communities where – Bosnians will find other Bosnians, and Vietnamese other Vietnamese, Iraqis other Iraqis, and they’ll move and relocate. And the importance of that psychologically, is that they provide mutual support. So when I worked with Afghan refugees in California for several years, what I found was there was this remarkable community of people providing support to each other, creating community spaces, and celebrating traditional events. They were, you know, active engaged citizens or, you know, becoming citizens, and they were very involved with their American hosts and their community, but they also provided enormous spiritual and social support to each other. My joke was always that a lot of my Afghan friends were making better livings than I was, you know, they were succeeding, they were attending university, they were getting good jobs. And I was a lowly assistant professor at the time. So I think wherever they settle initially, refugees will find each other and provide support, and help each other adjust to survive. One of the hardest things, and the biggest predictor of depression among refugees, is discrimination by the host society. So when you plunk a refugee family down in the middle of the community where they’re not wanted, that tends to take a real toll on their mental health, and their ability to adjust. When people are able to be supportive and welcoming, and that leads to, you know, I think a really important theme in the book, which is, that we often feel like there’s really nothing we can do in the face of this whole refugee crisis. But in fact, there’s small things we can do that are actually enormously impactful. I think about a particular story I tell. It’s about a Bosnian woman in Chicago who is being seen in our clinic, and she presented with really severe depression, and symptoms of trauma. She’s about 60, 65 years old, Muslim woman, from rural Bosnia. She came over with her grown-up son and his wife, and she didn’t speak any English. She was just terrified of leaving the apartment during the day while they were at work. And she didn’t get better despite weeks and months of therapy, and antidepressant medication. Well, finally her therapist, this marvelous young psychology intern, got this idea that maybe her depression was rooted in her sense of isolation and powerlessness. So what they did, every week they started taking the bus and subway all over Chicago, and intentionally getting lost. And she gradually, with Greg’s help, learned how to read the map, subway map, the train map, and find her way around. And within about six weeks, she was able to leave the home during the day, attend social events. She started meeting new friends and visiting them in their homes. She could attend a mosque. She could come into the center on her own. And her depression, within about two months, was all but gone. The symptoms of trauma abated. So, small thing, you didn’t need to be a mental health professional to realize that what she needed was just to feel empowered, and more in control of her life. And these are the kinds of support that we can offer to refugees without being mental health professionals, and they make a very big difference.
Schechtman: Kenneth Miller. Kenneth, thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Miller: Thank you for having me on your show, it’s been a pleasure.
Schechtman: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from refugee (European Commission DG ECHO / Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
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