Archive for the ‘trauma’ Category

The shortest story I’ve ever written

June 27, 2022

Ripe Fiction pairs fiction with news stories. Yesterday, on International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, they published the shortest story I’ve ever written.

Writers Festival Event with Ibrahim Nasrallah

February 18, 2022

If you had hoped to catch our reading and discussion this morning but the date and hour made it impossible, the 90-minute event was recorded and is available here to view, if you wish, at your convenience.

I had previously read two of Ibrahim Nasrallah’s novels but still was not prepared for the overwhelming power and beauty of his poetry. He read in Arabic with the English translation on the screen, so we non-Arabic speakers could appreciate the meaning and use of language while also having the benefit of the sound and rhythm of his poetry.

Thank you, Allison Hedge Coke and the UCR Writers Week Festival for making this possible, to Playwright Esther Banegas Gatica for introducing me, and writers Hannah Roberts and K. Quyen Pham for hosting the session and asking great questions.

Saying Goodbye to Dianna Ortiz

February 22, 2021

Dianna Ortiz, an American nun, was working with Indigenous people when she was abducted, tortured and raped by the Guatemalan military. Her fight to see justice done uncovered the US complicity with the Guatemalan genocide. She became an important part of the campaign against the practice of torture and for the healing of survivors. She directed TASSC – Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition.

In 2012, at the Program for Torture Victims, we honored her as a Human Rights Hero. We learned today that she died this week, in hospice, much too young at 62.

Thinking of her made me remember: I was in Guatemala about a decade before she was, briefly staying at a guesthouse where military officers stationed in the village also took meals. We ate family-style. I was talking about the school for Indigenous youth where I’d been living in Mexico. The table fell silent till one of the men said, “Señorita, you must not talk about this. It’s all very good for Mexico, but in this country, if you teach an Indian to read, the Army will kill you.”

Rest in peace, Sister Dianna.

Questioning the Border Emergency, or Que Pasa in Tijuana?

February 28, 2019

I’ve been out-of-touch, and here’s why:

After my week in Tijuana volunteering with Al Otro Lado’s Border Rights Project, urgent questions continue to roil my mind. Come along with me and see if you have answers. Then I’ll walk you through a typical day.

Who thought it would be a good idea to block asylum-seekers from approaching the US/Mexico border at Chaparral?

Why would the US need a barrier of concrete or steel when Mexican officials and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers form a human wall with their bodies and with lies (such as There’s no such thing as asylum or The US is now full and no one else can come in or You can only apply at certain hours and on certain days), with new (illegal) regulations such as No unaccompanied minors will be admitted?

All that is illegal of course. If you’re fleeing persecution and you fear violence in your home country, you have an absolute legal right under US and international law to present yourself at a port-of-entry (or elsewhere on US soil) and ask for the protection of asylum. That does not mean asylum will be granted. You are simply entitled to a “credible fear hearing”, a first step in the process, in which you must convince an official you have grounds for asylum and a significant possibility of its being granted in immigration court.

Who decided that desperate people should put their names on a list (an illegal practice), and wait for weeks or months to be called.

How come they are housed in distant shelters in territory controlled by organized crime?

Is it reasonable that, to find out if their numbers are called, they have to travel 2-3 hours by bus to reach the waiting area?

By what arbitrary means does CBP determine “capacity” for the day, so that sometimes 20 people will be transferred by van to Tijuana’s older port-of-entry at San Ysidro, CA, and sometimes 40 and sometimes none?

I didn’t see an invasion. I saw a cruelly devised and intentional bottleneck.

I saw the injustice done to the people of Tijuana (and all of Mexico) as they are forced to cope with the chaos and desperate need caused by the US government. How can that be fair?

What happens after that van ride? Maybe that’s what shocked me most.

Whose idea was it that those finally allowed to present themselves get sent for days to la hielera—the icebox—holding cells where the temperature is kept down to 45oF? It must have taken a very special mind that decided to strip migrants (including babies) of all their outerwear, leaving only a single article of clothing on their vulnerable bodies before hustling them into the icebox.

Who thought they could do this with impunity and no fear of ever being charged with crimes against humanity?

If I hadn’t gone to Tijuana, I would not have known about Chaparral or how Al Otro Lado volunteers show up at 7:00 AM with blankets or towels to create makeshift dressing rooms. Migrants get a chance to change their clothes—or receive new warm clothes from the volunteers—so that the warmest sweater, fleece-lined pants, whatever will protect them most in la hielera, is closest to the skin and will not be confiscated. Volunteers also provide Sharpies so parents can write their contact information on the children’s skin in case of separation. (Yes, the illegal kidnapping of children from their parents is still happening.)

If I hadn’t gone to Tijuana I would have relied on the NY Times where I read on the front page an article suggesting Mr. Trump’s hard line has been successful in deterring migrants. The article cited the approximately 1,000 migrants who’ve received work permits to stay in Mexico. In fact, these permits—humanitarian visas—simply guarantee that for one year the migrants will not be deported back to their home countries and can earn money while they await the chance to present themselves to a US official. The news also reports that there are fewer migrants in Mexico and they must have given up and returned home. If only. Migrants are being disappeared. Some are abducted. Some are hunted down by the very people who caused them to flee their countries—and who regularly threaten Al Otro Lado volunteers with death unless we turn over the clients or give information about their whereabouts. The office phones are now unplugged because while the threats keep coming by other means, at least no one has to listen to them all. The more visible volunteers also face regular harassment from both Mexican and US border guards.

Al Otro Lado knows of at least one case in which a truck pulled up at a migrant shelter offering a day’s paid labor. Men eagerly clambered aboard. They had no idea they had just delivered themselves into the hands of organized crime. They were taken, as reported later by an escaping survivor, to the site of a massacre. He came back to tell the story. The others were never seen or heard from again.

I never felt unsafe in Tijuana. For migrants, sheltered in the most dangerous neighborhoods and with targets on their backs, it’s another story. That’s why Al Otro Lado has joined in the lawsuit to block one of Trump’s latest outrages: people who pass the credible fear interview are being sent back to Mexico to wait there for their full hearing before an immigration judge which may take weeks, months, or even years to schedule.

Since November, the Border Rights Project has assisted thousands of migrants from at least 37 countries. My own experience was with people from Cameroon, El Salvador, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Nicaragua. All this is accomplished with only a single staff person, who is dedicated these days to litigation. All day-to-day operations are in the hands of volunteers as the Border Rights Project currently receives no grants or foundation support and has to rely on individual donations. During my stay, we received orientation from a volunteer who’d been on-the-job for 89 consecutive days.

It was easy enough for me to take a bus to the border and cross on foot, but experienced and committed immigration attorneys as well as other volunteers traveled at their own expense from all over the country. While I was there, a team of medics from Alaska flew in to staff the onsite clinic. The preponderance of gringo volunteers does not indicate a neocolonialist agenda. The migrants need to consult with US attorneys expert in US immigration law. Local tijuanenses, some with dual citizenship, were also there to volunteer on behalf of the vulnerable newcomers to their city.

Because new people are regularly rotating in and out, we spend time each morning in training and organizing assignments. There’s plenty for English-only volunteers to do: registration and security checks at the entrance and on the stairs, tech and data entry, lunch set-up, childcare in the playtime area, intake with Anglophone Africans, documentation and more. Everyone helps with cleaning. In the afternoon, clients begin to arrive for the free clinic and for lunch. If they’ve already met with a lawyer once and have follow-up questions or have additional documents with them, they can be seen again. Newcomers attend the charla, the know-your-rights workshop (in whatever languages needed) that provides an overview of the asylum process.

My role usually started after the charla. I’d do intake interviews with Spanish-speakers, explain again that the attorney would offer suggestions and advice but could not offer representation. Some had immigration questions not related to asylum and I’d get answers from one of the lawyers. For someone traveling with their biological children, we had them fill out a form with the kids’ names and birthdates and a statement they would not under any circumstances agree to be separated. The signed statement is not always honored, but we know it did the job at least once when a CBP officer put a pen in a woman’s fingers and tried to move her hand to sign a document agreeing to have her children taken. She resisted and produced our form. (Through a parallel program, Al Otro Lado is working to bring improperly deported parents back to the US and reunite them with the children the US government managed to lose.)

For particularly vulnerable clients—for example, with serious medical issues, or someone speaking only an uncommon indigenous language—we had a special form to try to keep track of their treatment.

During intake, I’d get some basic information about the person, including contact information for them and for anyone in the US willing to serve as sponsor. We went over background and the reasons they feared being sent home. One of the lawyers would then join us and get a better idea of whether a person had a strong case. Some did not, and were told this in a straightforward but compassionate manner, while suggesting another opinion might be different. Then followed the two most important parts of my job as first I helped prepare people for their credible fear hearings.

In my interviews, traumatized people spoke in disjointed, confusing ways, without clear chronology. We didn’t put words into their mouths but tried to help people get the chronology straight and tell their stories in a logical way, highlighting what’s relevant, what actually happened directly to them instead of resorting to euphemism or speaking in general terms. We role-played so they could practice their words and think hard about them. People are sometimes awakened at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning—and who thought that would be a good idea?—taken from the hielera for their hearing in a state of total confusion, so they need to be well prepared.

Finally, I accompanied the client to the documentation table where even new volunteers became the most precise, detail-oriented helpers you could imagine. Here we copied all the important documents the person carried, e.g., identification cards, marriage certificates, birth certificates, medical reports, political party membership cards, photos and videos of injuries and State-sanctioned attacks. All this gets stored in a secure site in the cloud where it can be accessed by the client if the originals are stolen, lost, or—as shouldn’t happen but does—confiscated by border officials and trashed.

Volunteers remain onsite to finish up and debrief each evening though we need to get clients out the door early enough that they can travel back to their shelters before nightfall.

My admiration for the courage of the migrants and the commitment of my fellow volunteers goes beyond what I can easily express. Because of confidentiality and security concerns I can’t share individual stories of asylum-seekers. I can’t give a shout-out to extraordinary volunteers who deserve recognition.

As for me, I heard about Border Rights Project because the Program for Torture Victims, my home base and social justice family, is part of the Rapid Response Network, receiving calls to action when immigrants and refugees are at risk. I expected to be the oldest person traveling to Tijuana and I was already patting myself on the back when I met the woman older than myself who’d spent months camping out at Standing Rock, and the three seniors so committed to social justice they pack up and go wherever there’s a need.

I returned to LA profoundly inspired by so much resilience and passion. But…at the Ped East border crossing to San Ysidro, as I got in line with my US passport, I saw the cage holding people whose numbers had been called that morning. I saw Central American families with little children and CBP officers barking orders at a group of English-speaking Africans. Their next stop would be the hielera. I wanted to wish them good luck and courage. I wanted them to know there are people who care, but my line moved too quickly past them.

The CBP officer looked at my passport and asked only one question: “What are you bringing from Mexico?” Grief, I thought, and anger, and hope. “Nothing,” I said. I told him nothing.

Intergenerational Trauma – Part 5 – Childhood Amnesia

October 2, 2018

As I learned at the symposium, Inheriting Genocide, and shared with you in the first installment, during the Armenian Genocide in 1915, infants and children were snatched from their mothers and given to Turkish, Kurdish, and Bedouin families.

After the war, adult survivors in the Armenian diaspora and aid organizations sought to ransom and rescue the abducted children. Some children did remember the past—only too well. They didn’t come forward as they feared they would be slaughtered if anyone knew they were Armenian. But many of the children had no memories at all of their early years or even their original names.

Salpi Gharazian told us how her grandmother would read obituaries and repeat “How lucky! How lucky!” When Ghazarian asked, “What do you mean lucky? They’re dead!”, her grandmother answered, “Look. It says here where they were born. They knew where they were born.”

All of us lose conscious memory from the time of birth until around three years of age: “childhood amnesia”. But what happens during those years lost to consciousness does leave its imprint. It may not figure in our autobiography, the narrative we can tell about ourselves, but it all becomes part of our “implicit biography” which Dr. Andrei Novac says includes nonverbal patterns of response, the framework geared perhaps above all to relationships.

For each of us, the implicit biography is a powerful part of identity. As for the lost Armenian children, they didn’t react when read lists of Armenian names. They didn’t react to the Armenian language. But the gates of emotion and memory opened at the sound of an Armenian lullaby.

How deep they go, the childhood memories we are unable to remember!

I thought of a Nigerian I know here in LA. He feels a pang when he sees children at play, reminders to him that he never had a childhood. And I thought of how often Hector has said that when we play theater games, we become little kids again.

Infants at play live in a world of pure imagination. They know nothing of rules or winners and losers. All that comes soon enough as they are socialized through more structured play on the way to adulthood. But in those first years, as Hector often says in ImaginAction workshops, “There’s no right way or wrong way. Whatever you do is perfect.”

Of course, many of us don’t remember ever feeling that way.

We learn about attachment in those forgotten years, 0-3, about whether safety and reassurance will return when we’re hungry or cold or scared or alone. I like to think that when we gather together in an ImaginAction sudden village and play together like little kids we recapture our own perfection and the idyllic days we have forgotten. Or maybe sometimes we can repair the past and experience that perfect grace for the first time.

Intergenerational Trauma – Part 4 – Theories of Transmission

October 2, 2018

My own account on this subject is very limited, so if you’d like a more thorough introduction to epigenetics, I recommend the essay/review, Epigenetics: The Evolution Revolution by Israel Rosenfield and Edward Ziff as published in the New York Review of Books.

Here’s my report, and I’ll be posting the final installment, Childhood Amnesia, a few minutes from now.

“When a crime against humanity occurs, all of humanity is affected,” said Christie Tcharkhoutian, speaking at the symposium, Inheriting Genocide: Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma.

In that spirit, I’ve tried to apply what I heard that day very broadly. Right now? I’ve just watched footage of still another school shooting. Children dead. Hundreds more traumatized by what they’ve gone through. Millions of parents and kids affected as well, as they realize, once again, that there is no place of safety, that in our society guns have more rights than human life. Politicians are complicit in the slaughter. Gun manufacturers profit from it. No one is left untouched.

“Most trauma,” said Dr. Andrei Novac, “has fallout in society.”

This installment, however, will briefly share theories about the transgenerational effects of trauma. How is it transmitted? There’s no single explanation. Instead we have to look at the individual, at the interplay of biological and psychosocial factors.

As Dr. Natan Kellermann pointed out, even within a single family, not every child inherits the burden of secondary trauma. He asks about content, process, and timing: what the child learned, how it was told, and when—and how the child reacted to this knowledge.

When the parent’s trauma remains silenced, psychoanalytic theory would say the repressed experience is transmitted as a shadow over the child, and it’s the child who must now process the experience. On the other hand, sometimes there’s too much talk of the traumatic experience, repetitive and obsessive.

Tactics that helped a person survive there may carry over in habits here. The second generation feels the effects even if the mechanism is not clear.

Parenting style makes a difference. For example, survivors may be overprotective while others have no patience with any sign of weakness.

Today there’s a lot of interest in the biological or epigenetic factors, the way the biological stress response in the mother is transmitted to the child during pregnancy.

In just one line of research, as Dr. Andrei Novac explained, when a person perceives a potential threat, the impulse goes first through the frontal lobe which evaluates whether or not the alarm needs to be heeded. In people who’ve been traumatized, the amygdala doesn’t wait for the stimulus to be evaluated. Instead it releases a flood of adrenaline. For most people, this then triggers the release of cortisol which has an initial calming effect. But people diagnosed with PTSD show below normal levels of cortisol. Once an alarm is triggered, the organism doesn’t calm down—and it turns out children of people diagnosed with PTSD are more likely to develop PTSD themselves if experiencing trauma. They show the same low cortisol levels.

We tend to use the term “PTSD” for any negative consequence of trauma. For those of us who work with survivors of any sort of trauma, Dr. Novac stressed that PTSD is actually the least common diagnosis, though the most severe and needing the most treatment. The most frequent diagnosis is depression followed by anxiety which may be accompanied by substance abuse.

Dr. Kellermann reminded us that vast majority of survivors and their children function well. Consequences are unpredictable; most people will recover from trauma though everyone, depending on context and at different times, can experience either vulnerability or resilience. Every survivor had a history and a personality before the horrific event, during it, and after. When we generalize, we lose sight of the individual as well as the individual ways in which people interpret and make meaning from or find meaning in their life experience.

When we focus solely on the negative consequences of trauma, we may overlook the positive. As practitioners we can honor and support the strength, the sense of identity, solidarity, and commitment, the drive to achieve and never waste the life we’ve been given, all the motivating power that accompanies Post-Traumatic Growth.

Thanks for accompanying me this far. One final installment still to come.

Till then, be well,