Houston, We Have a Problem

“Houston, we have a problem.” [1]

I watched Hurricane Harvey approach along with my fellow Americans and the rest of the world. Harvey’s Category 4 storm winds devastated Houston, Texas, America’s fourth-largest city. Experts estimate the costs to clean up and rebuild the city at a staggering $75 billion. [2]

Photos of destroyed homes, flooded streets and ruined businesses filled the media. When I watched and listened to footage of interviews with the locals, I had a strange déjà vu.

  • “I know it’s not a safe place to be, but … I don’t know where else I can go.”
  • “I was scared. I’ve seen a lot of things but that terrified me.”
  • “I just lost everything I worked for. Everything. The only thing I got are the clothes on my back.”
  • “We just had to go.”
  • “If they don’t restore power and water for three to six weeks, we have no choice but to leave.”
  • “It’s important for individuals, particularly that are in shelters, to let their family know that they’re safe and well and where they’re at.”
  • “If my kids are safe, my husband is safe, the dogs are with us, who cares.”
  • “There’s no way to get our family out.”

I listened as a young man carrying a small child told reporters that both his home and workplace had been destroyed. He needed shelter and a job, and was afraid he wasn’t going to be able to support his two-year-old daughter. [3]

These quotes come from the survivors of Hurricane Harvey. I’ve heard them before, word for word. These are the interviews I watch on the German nightly news with refugees fleeing Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria, Iraq. These are the stories of the two asylum seekers I massaged to treat their trauma.

The hundreds of thousands Texans and, later, Floridians who were forced out by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma aren’t all that different from the families escaping war zones. It is devastating when your home is gone. William “Brock” Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says “We used to look at citizens as disaster victims. Now they’re looked at as what we call disaster survivors.”

I’m not sure what conclusions (if any) to draw from the many similarities. Perhaps it’s that we’re all connected. Suffering is not limited to any one region or situation. Regardless of nationality, race, or religion, I hope our compassion is universal. Let’s extend it to families everywhere who lost all they had and now struggle to rebuild their lives.

As a survivor bravely added, “Life still goes on.”

NOTES: © Jadi Campbell 2017. [1] Phrases.org.uk  [2] “Moody’s Analytics, a New York-based financial analysis company, has pegged the destruction to southeast Texas, which includes the Rockport area where Harvey made landfall, as of mid-morning Aug. 29 at about $75 billion, covering homes, vehicles, businesses, infrastructure and lost economic output. Homes and vehicles alone in the region are expected to suffer about $30 billion to $40 billion in damage, according to an email from a Moody’s representative. Regional businesses could see up to $15 billion in damage.” Bizjournals.com [3] Quotes gathered from The Washington Post, Daily Mail UK, Caller Times, Houston Chronicle and personal interviews.

Click here for my author page to learn more about my books and me.


Loss. Helping Refugees: Part 7

When loss arrives, if I’m lucky I’m prepared for it. My mother-in-law died at the start of the summer, and we were at her side when she passed. But usually I’m not at all prepared. A vibrant friend from high school died in July, one week before I was going to see her in the States. A month later my father passed away suddenly, just short of his 85th birthday. I was reeling from the losses when I returned to Germany.

I went as I have, once a week for exactly a year, to do massage therapy for a refugee woman I’ve called M. I need my routines back. I have to resume the comforting familiarity of work and my ‘normal’ life.

We meet for a single session. But when I show up the following week, I knock and see the chair outside the door where I always sit to take off my shoes has been removed. I knock again and peer into the apartment. Someone’s taken down the sheets of vocabulary words from the kitchen wall. Still no one comes to the door. Finally I press the buzzer, something I never do because M is hypersensitive to any sudden loud noises.

“They’re gone.” I turn and see a neighbor refugee (Nigerian? Sudanese?). In broken German she explains, “The police came last Tuesday in the middle of the night and took them. They’re gone,” she repeats. “They were sent back to Kosovo.” [1]

The flood of refugees reaching Europe includes people from earlier wars (like M). In the scramble to provide services for millions of people who have lost everything, hard decisions have to be made about who is allowed to stay. For example, economic hardship isn’t accepted as grounds for asylum. Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and other countries have been declared safe places of origin. And now that the Kosovo ‘conflict’ has resolved, most asylum seekers from that region are sent back.

M and her family applied for years to be recognized as refugees. M’s fragile physical and psychological state were part of the reason they had been allowed to remain this long. But in a midnight action, officials came and woke the family, giving them an hour to pack their belongings. [2] They were taken to the airport and put on a plane.

I’m really at a loss for how to respond. I sympathize with the officials. Germany takes in more refugees than any other country in Europe. Even the little town I live in received over 600 refugees last year. But it’s another person ripped from my life. Death is final; so is deportation. [3]

I went home, contacted the Town Hall, and told them I’m prepared to offer free therapy for a new refugee. The need still remains, and I still want to help if I can.

NOTES: [1] In 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. M’s family speaks Albanian. [2] The deportation of asylum seekers who have their applications turned down take place in the middle of the night without warning. This is to prevent refugees from going underground or into hiding. [3] They won’t be allowed to enter a European Union country for the next three years.

***POST SCRIPT***: I’m about to start massage therapy for a refugee from Iraq. She and her husband fled last year with their family, but had to leave a baby behind.


The Human Dimension. Helping Refugees: Part 4

The Germans have a wry saying. “We sent for guest workers, but Menschen came instead.” Meaning that after WWII, the work force of foreigners who came to Germany turned out to be fellow human beings.

I find myself thinking about that saying. The flow of refugees heading this way is huge and overwhelming, and in some ways I am afraid. I love the security and safety of life here, how clean it is. I’m proud to live in a land with universal health care and great mass transit, wonderful street cafés, and (most important of all) the guarantee of personal freedoms and a firm commitment to human rights.

What does this have to do with the hordes of refugees flooding the country? I’m not sure. Maybe nothing at all. But I hear from some of my friends, “What if Europe becomes Muslim? What if the streets are filled next with women in full burkas? What if we lose our freedoms as Germans bend over backwards to accommodate the newcomers?

They’re nameless, faceless. They’re the others, the ones who constitute a vague but ever-growing threat.

One of my great bonds with the man I married is our desire to explore the world together. We’ve taken vacations in moderate Muslim lands. Every trip was wonderful, filled with people with dreams and hopes like yours and mine. I have a serious disconnect when I try to reconcile the horror of ISIS with the kindness of the friendly people we met in Egypt… Indonesia… Tunisia… Malaysia… Turkey… Singapore. The answer, of course, is they can’t be reconciled. The two have nothing to do with each other.

I’m terrified of the fanaticism that just killed more than 100 people in  Paris. The refugees are terrified, too. The people fleeing to Europe want the same things we do: a civilized place to work, live, and raise their children. A stream of humanity is arriving. People with dreams and hopes, like yours and mine.

Each time I go to massage the refugee M. [1], I’m confronted with my own fear of the unknown foreign.

We have no languages in common. I’m not only working without any knowledge of her history; we can’t even talk.  One of her children remains in the room the entire time to translate into German for her.

These are the hardest sessions I’ve ever attempted.

As a therapist my hands know their work; I’m capable to treat her PTSD symptoms. But the person-to-person connection…. I have to do this solely through touch. The afternoons of therapy have changed my understanding of the human dimension. It’s become more complicated, and much simpler. It’s changed me as well.

NOTES: [1] To respect the privacy of the persons involved I have changed the names and use initials only.

The Town Volunteer Program. Helping Refugees: Part 2

When dangerous months on foot or voyages in unstable boats are your only options, things are bad indeed. Refugees may be met at borders by hostile police or herded in subhuman conditions. Criminal bands now make more money from human trafficking than drugs. Millions are making the exhausting trek, often cheated and robbed.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has declared Germany will take in refugees, particularly those fleeing Syria. This doesn’t begin to meet the challenge of how to integrate all these newcomers. The scramble is on to figure out how to register, and house, and provide for over one million asylum seekers, all arriving at the same time.

My community will receive 300 refugees. Every empty building is being assessed for use as temporary or permanent housing. I live in a 1,200-year-old village – with fewer than 20,000 inhabitants. Strangers definitely stand out.

I began asking myself questions. What does it mean when an outside crisis brushes up against the everyday? Can I help? If yes, am I prepared for what that entails?

I called the Rathaus (Town Hall). “English is my native language and I’m fluent in German,” I said. “I can translate. We’ve got lots of household goods to donate. I’m a massage therapist: I can offer therapy if someone needs it.”

I was informed that my town has taken in earlier refugees from the former Yugoslavia, Pakistan, and other countries. The town runs a training program for volunteers (how to help the newcomers who suffer from shell shock and/or culture shock, what to expect, etc.). Translating services are in place; the town has more donations for supplies than they can use. But, the offer for medical services… They took my contact information to pass along.

The next morning, I received a phone call from A, the German liaison. [1] “Your offer is like hearing from someone from another planet,” she declared. “For months, a severely traumatized refugee has been requesting massage. How soon can we meet?”

I didn’t know it yet, but there would be no time for the training program.

NOTES: [1] To respect the privacy of all persons involved I have changed the names and use initials only. Part 3 to follow.