Much Rain Wears the Marble

I had just missed the bus, I know that now –but so had she, the little woman sitting by herself in the tiny shelter. It was an almost-dark evening in April, and I had walked for a few blocks along a darkened, tree-lined street because there was no shelter at the previous bus stop. It was perhaps a silly thing to do, but I didn’t fancy just standing in the cold. It was also raining heavily, so I took refuge under the first bus shelter I found. It had a low plastic roof and a small bench occupied by a middle aged woman. She glanced at me suspiciously and then buried her neck in her long black coat, staring motionlessly at her lap. Strands of long damp hair had escaped her blue woolen hat in places and hung limply on her shoulder like bits of tangled string. Although she was seated and trying to wrap herself like a package in her coat, her eyes made quick sorties in my direction -and even quicker retreats whenever I met them on their journey.

I could tell she was frightened, so I tried to stay near the edge of the shelter, but the fury of the rain pounding on the thin plastic roof soon drove me nearer to the bench. I smiled to put her more at ease, but the movement of my lips seemed to terrify her even more, and I could see her moving ever closer to the edge, ready to run if I so much as moved again. And yet, however uncomfortable, we were both trapped.

It seemed, though, that the longer I stood there, the more nervous she was becoming, so I decided to say something –anything- to reassure her.

“Sorry,” I started, “I’d wait outside, but the rain…” Her face almost disappeared inside the up-turned collar of her coat. Perhaps with the noise of the rain, she’d thought I was trying to flirt with her… I tried again. “Did we both just miss the bus…?” I suppose it didn’t sound very matter-of-fact, but it was hard to use a normal tone of voice to compete with the ferocity of the wind gusts and the incessant drumming of the rain. If she heard me, she was obviously too frightened to reply.

The wind was picking up and I was getting lashed with turbulent eddies of rain where I was standing, so I decided to sit on the opposite end of the bench she had clearly hoped would be hers alone. I had been carrying a cloth shopping bag with some take-out food I’d picked up for a late dinner, so I carefully placed it between the two of us like a wall. She was obviously at the extreme end of what little bench remained and I saw her eyes enlarge like a frightened doe as my bag seemed to close the distance.

I didn’t really know what to do; we both felt uneasy, so I decided to look away. Stare down the dark road, maybe -the bus shouldn’t be that far away. I raised my arm to look at my watch and I saw her flinch out of the corner of my eye. Things were getting serious.

“Listen,” I said, looking straight at where her face should have been, but seeing, instead, a knife. It was a tiny, dirty-looking folding knife, to be sure, but it startled me all the same. “I’m sorry I frightened you, but I’m just waiting for the bus…” I tried to sound calm.

She fastened two saucer-sized eyes on me so quickly I had to blink. They examined my soaked jeans, and then my equally sodden rain jacket. I wondered if perhaps it was the hood that had frightened her, so I slipped it off my head and smiled again. But her expression was still wary, still on guard -and so was the hand that held the little knife.

I shrugged, hoping to let her see I meant no harm, and yet she watched my every move like a wolf trying to estimate the threat I posed. I could have overpowered her easily, had she threatened me, but there was something about her excessive fear that tugged at me. It was more than fright, more than simple misgivings -it was terror. I wondered whether it was the way I was dressed, the isolation of the bus stop, or maybe a mental health issue. It was hard to judge anything about her appearance in the dim light, but who carries a knife to a bus stop?

The hand holding it shook slightly, but her fingers were so thin and boney I suspected she was unwell. “Are you okay, ma’am?” I asked, but gently, and only when I felt I could sit back against the thin wall of the shelter without alarming her further.

For a moment, she turned her whole head towards me, and it seemed as if she was going to answer me, but she merely blinked, and the movement of her lips faded. Her face, and what I could see of her neck, was as gaunt as her fingers, her cheeks hollow, and her lips cracked and unhealthy looking. The coat was clearly too large for her, but I don’t think that’s what made me sad. It was more her eyes: they seemed too large for her face –or rather, her face appeared to have shrunk around them.

I could see some tiny headlights far down the road, and I put my hands on my lap where she could see them. The bus would be here in a moment anyway. “Are you hungry?” I said –the words just sort of appeared at my lips and slipped out before I could think much about them.

She seemed surprised, and her eyes briefly softened, before going back on guard. I could see the knife shaking more now, as she watched for any trick I might be playing. But I caught the quick glance at my shopping bag, although I pretended not to notice.

“It’s not much, but there’s some take-out stuff in there…” I felt almost silly saying that, because the smell of Chinese food had hardly been dampened by the wet bag. “Oh, and there’s some veggies, and…” To tell the truth, I had forgotten what I had bought -or maybe I was embarrassed at what I had to offer.

Her eyes were beacons now, and her face had somehow moulded around them. There were only eyes, in fact, until they blinked. And, as the almost empty bus pulled up, I thought I saw a tear in one of them.

I left the bag on the bench, but she sat motionless and watched me get on the bus, watched me sit in the window seat, and as the bus began to pull away, I saw her mouth move and her hand wave before she reached for it.

I’m sorry now that I hadn’t bought anything more nourishing that night. Something more worthy for a gift…

 

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Is What’s Past Really Prologue?

War has so many faces and wears so many different clothes that you might be forgiven for misunderstanding its refugees. Confusing cause and effect in their behaviour, their appearance, and perhaps, most obviously, in their adaptations to the stress of upheaval and migration. There is no universal pattern that obtains, and few things to offer as a template for relief except, perhaps, a welcoming succour. And when numbers become overwhelming, even compassion is strained in the melange of personalities and temperaments that inevitably occur in those fleeing danger. Not all victims may be to our liking, and when resources become limited and privileges are necessarily constrained, the reactions can be unpredictable on both sides. Empathy can mutate into grudging tolerance. Forbearance. Endurance.

But think of the effects on the refugees, first forced to flee intolerable conditions, often leaving behind members of their families, then subject to the hardships and exploitation of the journey,  finally being forced to trust themselves to the charity of strangers. It cannot be easy for adults to have their identity subsumed by that of victim, and everything they were, everything they had, everything for which they had worked no longer possible. No longer recognized, let alone appreciated, in a strange land with often stranger customs and language.

And what must it be like for their children who haven’t yet learned the curse of humiliation, or understood what the theft of identity may mean to their parents. They’re caught in the middle ground between witness and casualty, understanding neither. Lacking the tools to navigate the waters, some, I suppose, internalize it; others lash out. But none escape entirely.

I came across an unusual manifestation of trauma that seems unique to Sweden (so far), for some reason –the newly coined Resignation Syndrome: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-41748485  ‘[…] it affects only the children of asylum-seekers, who withdraw completely, ceasing to walk or talk, or open their eyes.’

‘The health professionals who treat these children agree that trauma is what has caused them to withdraw from the world. The children who are most vulnerable are those who have witnessed extreme violence – often against their parents – or whose families have fled a deeply insecure environment.’

‘As more Swedes began to worry about the consequences of immigration, these “apathetic children”, as they were known, became a huge political issue. There were reports the children were faking it, and that parents were poisoning their offspring to secure residence. None of those stories were proven.’ A not so hidden ‘blame the victim’ scenario that tends to surface under conditions of societal stress.

‘Numerous conditions resembling Resignation Syndrome have been reported before – among Nazi concentration camp inmates, for example. In the UK, a similar condition – Pervasive Refusal Syndrome – was identified in children in the early 1990s, but there have been only a tiny handful of cases, and none of them among asylum seekers. The most plausible explanation is that there are some sort of socio-cultural factors that are necessary in order for this condition to develop. A certain way of reacting or responding to traumatic events seems to be legitimised in a certain context’ writes Dr Karl Sallin, a paediatrician at the Astrid Lindgren Children’s Hospital, part of Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm.

Theories abound, of course. There is a view ‘commonly held among doctors treating children with Resignation Syndrome, that recovery depends on them feeling secure and that it is a permanent residence permit that kick-starts that process.’ Unfortunately, with increasing numbers of refugees arriving, both the patience and the available resources are wearing thin, so stricter adherence to admission criteria do not always allow a family to stay. ‘Last year, a new temporary law came into force that limits all asylum seekers’ chances of being granted permanent residence. Applicants are granted either a three-year or 13-month visa.’

One treatment seems to be having some success, even with those not granted permanent visas, however. The thesis is that  sickness has to do with former trauma, not asylum. ‘When children witness violence or threats against a parent, their most significant connection in the world is ripped apart’ –the very connection on which the child has been dependent. ‘That family connection must be re-built, but first the child must begin to recover, so Solsidan’s [the treatment center’s] first step is to separate the children from their parents. “We keep the family informed about their progress, but we don’t let them talk because the child must depend on our staff. Once we have separated the child, it takes only a few days, until we see the first signs that, yes, she’s still there…” says Annica Carlshamre, a senior social worker for Gryning Health, a company that runs Solsidan, a home for all kinds of troubled children.

Even if effective, I would imagine that not every family would be willing to part with their child to strangers, nor would the number of treatment centers be equal to the task. Still, it may be a method worth exploring further.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Resignation Syndrome, Situational Adjustment Reactions, Panic Attacks… I am not alone in wondering what these may produce in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, affected –either in childhood when coping mechanisms may not yet have been learned, or worse perhaps, in adulthood when the mechanisms may have been discarded. What can we expect from a generation torn from its customs, and rightful expectations of a peaceful family life? A generation often deprived of education, to say nothing of safety? What is normal to those who have never experienced it? And what are the obligations of the rest of us to them?

War, it is said, will be with us always, but we must not be fooled by its seeming inevitability. I suppose it is unbecomingly naïve in this time of terrorism and bellicose patriotism, but I still remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure? It’s not an answer, perhaps -just a hope…