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.

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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 Long Haul. Helping Refugees: Part 5

At the start of each week I spend my afternoon massaging a traumatized refugee. When I volunteered back last fall I promised her, her family, and myself that I was committed to doing this, that I’m in it for the long haul.

Almost a year later, the haul feels long indeed.

I knew on all sorts of levels it wasn’t going to be easy. Progress was going to be slow and probably measured out in small increments. We would face language barriers. Culture barriers. Experience barriers. The trauma she’s gone through.

No worries. I figured, I’m a trained professional, I could deal with the patient work her therapy was going to entail. Sure I could. In reality, I was clueless. Ten months later, I’m still clueless. I don’t see any improvement other than the way she no longer cries through the entire session. Now she only cries for most of it or just a few minutes. But she always sobs with pain at some point while I’m working on her.

With the exception of Christmas, a week when I had the flu, and a day when she had other appointments all day long, we’ve never missed a Monday. So why isn’t she better?

I arrive at the refugee housing and some days there are lots of small children playing in front of the building, their asylum-seeking parents going about their chores. We all say hello. Then I climb the stairs to the apartment where M and her family live, take off my shoes outside, and knock on the door. I greet the daughter who translates for us and head for the bedroom where M is on her side in bed with her eyes closed, or propped up on pillows in bed with a smile, waiting for me. Either way, she’s never without pain, her body is still a treacherous surface of hidden nerve hotspots. The family insists I should keep returning each week, that the massages help her and she’s always happier on the morning she expects me. So what am I doing wrong? What do you do with expectations and hopes that seem to go nowhere? The long haul looks like a long road to no place I can predict or hope to reach.

I go back each week anyway. To do so I’ve needed to reconfigure everything, and I mean everything, I thought I understood about the goals of therapy and the protocols to measure success.

I threw them all out.

I can’t have goals because there’s never any visible improvement. I can’t aim for success as I understand the term, because success in this case has nothing to do with measurable, quantifiable progress. Give your level of pain a number from 1 to 10, I told her. Is it worse here? Better when I press here? If I can’t end her pain, maybe I can help her to see it as lessened.

M can finally breathe into the painful places. One day she spoke in a loud voice and I asked her daughter to translate for me. M had growled something along the lines of, “I don’t want to give you a stupid number! Just give me the massage!” It was the first spark of will I’d seen or heard from her. The fact that this traumatized, raped refugee felt secure enough to snap at me was a good thing. This is how I now measure ‘success’, this is what I can call ‘progress’.

The journey she and I are on together inches its way forward.

NOTES: Go to my earlier posts Helping Refugees-Part 1, 23, 4 to read more about my attempts to come to grips with the refugee crisis.

 

PTSD. Helping Refugees: Part 3

I go one afternoon a week to where refugees are housed and provide therapy for a woman I will call M. [1]

When I decided to take the plunge and volunteer, I had no idea what that would look like or what I’d be doing. For the last thirty years I’ve worked as a massage therapist. I’ve treated people across the health spectrum: Pregnant. Disabled. Patients during chemo and radiation therapy. Triathletes to couch potatoes. People seeking relaxation, to a man in need of pain relief years after a helicopter crash. My abilities as a therapist deepen with each person I attempt to help.

I’m licensed in both Europe and America. I kept my US credentials current by doing periodic workshops. I did this for decades, until the weekend seminars felt like I was reinventing the wheel.

I briefly considered doing massage with the aged after we put my mother-in-law in a nursing home near us. But my grief as I accompany Mama in the twilight of her life makes it too personal. When I learned a refugee needed massage, it seemed like the perfect way to stretch myself as a therapist and as a human being.

M. and her family fled from an earlier war zone; they’ve been in my village for over a year. M. is severely traumatized. She existed in a catatonic state for many months. Loud or sudden noises trigger panic attacks and migraines and a voice moaning in her head. Her entire body is a field of pain. Most movement is agony.

Within minutes of beginning our initial massage, M. began sobbing. She cries through every single session. It’s ‘just’ nerves.

No one in her family will tell me her story. I have bits and pieces, cobbled together from talking with her doctor and the volunteer organization. She discovered a dead body.  Was it suicide, or murder? Was it a family member? She was raped more than once. Twice, ten times, one hundred? One man or many? Someone known to her? Looters? Soldiers?

Like I say: I have bits and pieces.

I first met the German liaison when she took me to the refugees. She gave me the barest of details, less than five minutes before I met M. I’d be working right away, without any volunteer training or medical protocols in place. For me the single most important question was: Who had requested the massage therapy?

It was M.

NOTES: [1] To respect the privacy of those involved I have changed names and identifying details, and use initials only. Part 4 to follow.