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What Connects the Holocaust and the Taliban?

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Afghan refugees sit on a bus as they wait to be taken to a processing center after arriving at Dulles International Airport last month.
Afghan refugees sit on a bus as they wait to be taken to a processing center after arriving at Dulles International Airport last month.Credit: EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/ REUTERS

Over the past few months, as we’ve watched our country collapse again and taken over by the Taliban, I, and many other Afghans have been experiencing trauma.

We’ve felt under attack from all sides. From the false narrative that Afghans didn’t fight for their country, or the narrative that the Taliban have changed; above all, we’ve been witnessing the desperation of fellow Afghans as everything they have built over the past 20 years has come under threat. 

Trauma doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and it doesn’t neatly exhaust itself, either: it is passed on through generations. The next generation of Afghans may feel the pain of the events that their parents went through, even if they were not there to witness it.  

My last few memories in Afghanistan, as an 11 year-old girl, before my family fled, were of worry and fear about the safety of my family, as my world in Afghanistan shrank, and we were stuck at home because of the conflict.

When we finally left our home, my last memory is of the despair I felt about being separated from my grandmother, and the dislocation I felt the first night we spent in exile. The fall of Kabul to the Taliban this summer triggered all these painful memories again.

Refugees fleeing Afghanistan stand as Taliban members stop them at the border with Pakistan in Spin Boldak this month.Credit: BULENT KILIC - AFP

Intergenerational trauma means that those who have not lived through an experience can still be triggered by associated factors and experience distress and possibly trauma. 

Intergenerational trauma is a well-documented phenomenon. Research on U.S. ex-POWS shows that their sons were more likely to die young than the sons of soldiers who had not been held captive. In Sweden, a condition termed ‘Resignation Syndrome’ affects the children of asylum-seekers: they lose their ability to walk or talk when they are faced with the trauma of deportation. 

The most vulnerable are those who have witnessed extreme violence or who have fled an unstable environment. Research among children whose parents had been tortured showed that intergenerational trauma affected their psychological development, social behavior and some presented PTSD symptoms. Similarly, the descendants of Holocaust survivors have an increased likelihood of stress disorders.

When you see findings like these, it can feel that intergenerational trauma is a cycle that can’t be broken. But simple interventions that help people feel safe and heard can go a long way in helping people overcome difficult experiences. 

When I first went to Calais in 2015 to work with refugees, I was struck by how many people in the French port city where makeshift camps have sprung up wanted to talk and share their stories. They wanted people to understand and to connect with them as human beings, not as objects of pity or targets of fear.

I had the same experience later in Greece in 2016, where I founded the Refugee Trauma Initiative in response to the difficulties of those forcibly displaced in their country of asylum.

RTI’s vision is to offer non-clinical mental health support, tailored to the needs of displaced people and host communities and to build community healing and resources in a way that will stay with communities for a long time. 

Afghan migrants hide in the countryside in Tatvan, in Bitlis Province, eastern Turkey earlier this month.Credit: Emrah Gurel,AP

In our healing spaces we don’t diagnose trauma, but we recognize that experiences violence and displacement may be traumatic. Trauma-sensitive care can help people to learn how to return to an internal ‘safe space’ and help them feel calmer and safer in their bodies. 

By understanding the impact of trauma, a trauma-sensitive approach helps people to build resilience as they navigate the uncertain next steps of their lives. 

We take this approach because community healing can break the cycle of intergenerational trauma.

As countries around the world begin to resettle Afghan refugees, including trauma care in their services can help people cope with their new circumstances and to begin new lives. New arrivals need to feel safe; they need to reconnect with themselves and their families, and have a community that can support them through their healing.

In the safe spaces that we run for men, women, young people and children, they are invited to express themselves through art and movement; they are shown positive regard no matter who they are, and their experiences and histories are acknowledged and respected. Families can have essential respite from their day-to-day difficulties, and we run activities that help bring joy.

Afghan children paint outside a tourist resort in the Albanian coastal city of Shengjin. Albania has pledged to accept temporarily up to 4,000 Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban.Credit: GENT SHKULLAKU - AFP

All these help people fill their sense of self and self-worth, building their resilience and helping them cope with the challenges of being displaced. 

People around the world watched in real time the desperation of Afghans as the country fell to the Taliban. We could see the distress of people flooding to the airport in attempt to save themselves and their families. 

Anyone forced to leave their home, their community and their livelihood behind in those circumstances would feel the impact of their loss. Refugees and asylum seekers experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorders than members of the general population, but light touch interventions can mitigate some of the worst impacts of conflict. 

Kinder, trauma-informed responses are needed to break the cycle of trauma and now, with the wave of desperate refugees from Afghanistan as the latest reminder, they are more important than ever. 

Zarlasht Halaimzai is Co-Founder and CEO of the Refugee Trauma Initiative, a former refugee from Afghanistan, and a frequent media commentator in the UK and U.S. on issues related to refugees, trauma and displacement. Previously, Zarlasht advised international NGOs on refugee education and child wellbeing, and was a Fellow of the inaugural class of Obama Fellows. Twitter: @ZarlashtH

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