If your homeland is in a state of conflict, do you feel anger, loss, resentment, helplessness.. or guilt?
Violence in the Middle East has people living in a constant state of fear and agitation. Many are driven out of their homes. Many are trying to find a new one.
Exploring a neglected area affected by these clashes and losses, documentary filmmaker and Assistant Professor at the American University of Sharjah, Susan Smith started the Speak Trauma Foundation.
Aimed at recognizing, inspiring and empowering people experiencing trauma caused by violence, Speak Trauma focuses away from ‘home’, on the expats – migrants of war-torn countries in the UAE and elsewhere.
Why? An accumulation of personal experiences resulted in moving Smith to take this step. She tells us the story:
A few years ago, an American University of Sharjah Egyptian student of mine returned to Egypt to document the protests (she worked part-time for a local newspaper). She had not lived in Egypt since she was a very young child but felt an overwhelming desire to help in someway. We had many discussions about the guilt she felt and the shame she experienced because she had left her homeland and escaped the conflicts. She often expressed the fact that she was ready to die for her homeland. She ultimately became a victim of violence – she was among the many killed in Rabaa Al Adawiya Square in Cairo in August 2013.
Through previous documentary work, Smith recognized how sharing stories allows people an outlet for their grief and pain.
She says succinctly that the “simple, yet critically important act of being acknowledged, being listened to – truly being heard – changes everything.”
With this value at its core, Speak Trauma was founded. With their primary pool of study subjects in University, the foundation has made an impressionable mark in a few years by:
– Encouraging students to talk about their pain,
– hosting open mic nights to get people talking and,
– studying the effects and pervasiveness of trauma caused by violence.
For instance, when 80 AUS students from Egypt, Libya, Syria, Palestine and Iraq were studied, the results reflected how students felt about perceived losses: loss of culture, land or home, language, religion, and community and elders (and more).
Some of the results indicate:
-14 % think about the loss of contact with their home or birth country several times a day.
-53% think about the loss of self-respect due to the treatment of others who do not understand their culture or where they are from weekly.
-47% think about the loss of respect from those still living in their home country.
-52% feel sadness, anxiety, shame, depression and rage due to these losses daily to weekly.
Can Violence Back Home Affect Me Here?
If you happen to think this has no relevance to you since you’re living away from direct contact with violence, think again.
People can experience trauma without being at home.
Smith explains the phenomenon of ‘third-culture’ students, that is neither their birth country not their passport country, and how they may be affected:
Many UAE student migrants surveyed do not express a strong tie to a nationality, ethnicity or race—or a personal world-view and values that are mirrored in a UAE identity, or in the groups to which they belong or might have previously belonged. Many express a ‘negotiated’ state of identity.
Our studies indicate that students may feel these losses more acutely because of their migrant identity.
While some UAE youth who have lived outside their home countries for most of their lives or for an extended period of time express little loyalty toward their home country, others seem to develop extreme feelings of attachment, loss, and guilt. These feelings can be exacerbated if their home countries are in turmoil.
The following excerpt is from an interview with an AUS female Syrian student:
“It’s guilt. I feel guilty because I’m comfortable. I need to be there on the ground, if not in Syria then at least in neighboring countries where there are refugees… Last January, it became so bad I went into depression and I started to see a therapist. I even got suicidal at some points, it doesn’t make sense for me, all I wanted to do was hold on and go back home and I tell myself I don’t want to die this way… I just want to drop all of my courses and I just want to go, I’m agitated, I can’t study, my grades are getting lower and I don’t want to make it a reason (June, 2013).”
What is Trauma?
Witnessing home being torn apart in the news everyday – gory messages and statistics on the radio, TV, on social media – can have a huge impact psychologically.
Many may associate trauma with immediate shock, and yet trauma can have long-lasting outcomes, in stages, where the manifestation isn’t always obvious.
It can be shock or denial, people may not understand why they feel sad, or refuse to talk about their anger. Others can feel isolated, guilty and a loss of belonging.
All of these unresolved or buried reactions come to the forefront at the Watani Initiative Open Mic nights, where people are invited to share their thoughts through song, dance, music, poetry and performance.
Here are some opinions from attendees of the open mic events held at AUS and in Amman, Jordan:
The poems also were very beautifully written, and actually made me tear because they were speaking about topic that meant so much to them and despair was shown through their voices and eyes.
I liked the poem that referred back to Nietzsche and talks about how we can be our own homes and that home is not necessarily a physical embodiment but rather a feeling.
The event was beyond what I expected, it changed the way I think about life. They asked questions that I never thought about; I was so amazed as soon as I went back home I asked my sister and friends the same questions.
So, where do you consider home – and how much does it affect you?
We asked Smith to tell us where she thinks of as home:
I am like so many of my students. After living in the UAE for 12 years, I no longer feel like I belong to my American homeland. I experience culture shock when I return to the states and feel at home when I return to the UAE. At the same time I do not plan on living much longer in the UAE. I guess, home is a place I am searching for.