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Immigration guest column: A different kind of war

Assistant Professor Nancy Bothne, Ph.D., shares thoughts about the worldwide refugee crisis and what the greater global community can do to understand and embrace the challenges of immigration.

Wars used to be fought between countries. Since World War II, wars have been more often fought within countries. This poses a challenge to citizens from a country experiencing internal conflict. Which side are you on? Where can you find safety? particularly when neighbor may be fighting neighbor, what can you do to ease conflict?

Syria offers a case study of sorts. Syrians are not fleeing their country because it is being invaded by outsiders. No, the war in Syria is a conflict over the governance of the country, begun in protest to the reign of President Bashar al-Assad. The civil protest became a civil war, resulting in the deaths of more than 250,000 and the flight from Syria of more than 5 million people. Another 8 million are displaced within the country, unsafe in their homes and unable to find adequate shelter.

The basis of the United Nations refugee convention—which has been ratified by nearly all countries—is to protect those whose lives or freedom is in danger in their own homeland.

Stepping up to help

For the very reason that wars are now often internal conflicts, it is so important for the international community to provide protection to refugees. The Chicago School of Professional Psychology is stepping up to meet the needs of international refugees, taking a lead in making these issues a priority as we educate the next generation of mental health practitioners and change agents.

This fall, I am representing The Chicago School in “Immigration in Contexts: An Examination of Germany.” This innovative three-month interdisciplinary course brings together students and faculty from five colleges and universities to cultivate a deeper understanding of the ways immigration affects individuals, countries, and the world at large.

What students will learn when they visit Berlin for the study abroad portion of the course this December is that, although many countries are turning their backs on Syrian refugees, Germany is not.

Germany has offered asylum to more than 1 million Syrians. The vote of Britain to leave the European Union was seen by many as an anti-immigrant vote, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel continues to support German asylum for Syrians fleeing the war. Merkel takes a historical view of refugee needs. She understands that yesterday’s refugees from Germany have been replaced by today’s refugees from Syria. She believes Germany has two options: either support refugees or return to the nationalism that has forever stained Germany.

Yet the move to support refugees fleeing the dangers of Syria and seeking the freedom of Germany has been controversial, as immigration discussions have been here in our own country. A recent election in Germany indicated that support for Merkel’s immigration policies is eroding, even in her home district.

The remnants of these harrowing upheavals prevent refugees from rebuilding the lives and the relationships they may have had at home.

Syrians may feel uneasy, unable to remain secure in Germany, unable to rebuild their homes. And this raises the question, what exactly does home mean for Syrians who had their lives, their families, and their communities destroyed? Even though so many Syrians found shelter in Germany, their ability to find and create a home remains challenging.

Struggles continue

There are many other struggles that refugees face. Before, during, and after their migration, they are likely to face trauma. Before they migrate, refugees often face unthinkable trauma and PTSD from civil wars, natural disasters, and ruthless excess by government powers. During migration, refugees face harrowing physical challenges and certainly anxiety in the face of whole families and communities breaking apart.

Once migrated, refugees often face discrimination, poverty, and health problems. Even worse, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees estimates that at least 20 percent of refugees worldwide have been tortured.

Being able to build a community based on shared experience formed a foundation for victims to work at rebuilding close relationships with others.

Many people were tortured in their countries of origin; others were tortured during their migration. Refugees need more than shelter to heal and recover. The remnants of these harrowing upheavals prevent refugees from rebuilding the lives and the relationships they may have had at home. Rebuilding a sense of community life is one important component for refugees whose capacity for trusting others as been compromised.

One strategy found to overcome those traumas was developed by survivors who rebuilt community life among one another—recreating a sense of community. Being able to build a community based on shared experience formed a foundation for victims to work at rebuilding close relationships with others.

The challenges for Syrian refugees in Germany and elsewhere around the globe will continue. They will have to negotiate the politics and policies around immigration among competing political factions. They will also have to negotiate the remnants of the politics and policies that led to them to flee their countries as well.

There is no easy solution. However, I believe it’s important for the global community to become more educated and prepared to respond to the inevitable human fallout of this new kind of war.

According to international human rights law, refugees have a right to shelter and protection when remaining in their country is at the cost of safety and freedom. But as we all know, home offers more than shelter. It suggests a place of rest—of belonging, community, and security.

Every human being deserves that. It’s up to us to come together with solutions that lead to hope and healing, just as people have done throughout history.

Dr. Nancy Bothne


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