“There was no understanding that post-traumatic stress disorder can be passed on for generations—that it travels with the family and community.” – Jessica Bartholow (http://www.thenation.com/blog/169673/talk-about-poverty-talkpoverty-jessica-bartholows-questions-obama-and-romney#)
Working at Mary’s Place, I and my co-workers are highly exposed to survivors of extreme situations. While humans hold a great capacity for compassion, they also can inflict an equal amount of pain. Some of our clients, many being Burmese, come in with blindness, missing limbs, and chronic pains that were usually caused by land mines. We hear stories from adults and children about running from soldiers and dogs, being beaten, or desperately looking for food and medicine. One of our workers, a Burmese refugee that raised ten children in the Thai camps, had to bury his daughters to hide them from soldiers so that they would not be taken advantage of. These are the harsh realities of good people, people no different from you and me, other than where they were born. Many shy away from these stories, taking refuge in their Western comforts, but to do that is an injustice.
So what happens to these people when they finally get out of that situation? What do they imagine their new homes will be like when they finally are approved by UNHCR to leave the camps? What ghosts do they bring with them? PTSD has most likely always existed, but only in recent years come to light. It, like many other non-physical disorders, does not get the public attention it deserves. It is far too easy to place the blame on the victim when the aliment is not seen by the eye. So here we have these refugees, war veterans, Holocaust victims, etc, who have seen things and lived through things we are all too young to know, and their ghosts follow them. I don’t think PTSD only hurts the victim, but also the relatives and children. I think it transcends generations, and studies have proven it even on a genetic level.
What does PTSD have to do with poverty? Everything. War veterans disproportionately represent the poor in this country, and I believe it is because of two things; the high rates of PTSD among them, and the lack of assistance to help soldiers transition back to civilian life. It’s clear enough in Jessica Bartholow’s story. So then I look at our refugee clients, and I wonder. They already have to struggle with language and cultural barriers, but then physiological trauma on top of it? How do you work all day when you are plagued by nightmares? How do you brave the bus system, travel to DSS, talking to strangers in a foreign language when you had to leave all you know and love behind? This can only be amplified by those who self-medicate to avoid their pain, which makes holding down a job even more difficult. Then there is the residual effects on their children, who very often have ghosts of their own.
I am forever awestruck by the tenacity of our refugees.