Simplifier, Amplifier


Sometimes we have a lot to carry.


Here’s a thought experiment: First, unpack your sack of problems or worries, of whatever size, one at a time. Perhaps you recently noticed a stain on your favorite jeans. Maybe you’re getting the run-around from some official agency, where you call to resolve a problem, and get handed off to someone else, who tells you that you’ve failed to get the necessary something-or-other, but you’re welcome to hold while whoever-it-is goes on break. Maybe you’ve got some lower back pain that won’t go away. Maybe you have a child waking frequently with nightmares, which means that neither of you is getting good sleep. Perhaps you have noticed a tender spot in your neck, a small lump that is getting larger. Did you miss a credit card payment, so now your credit score has gone down drastically? Maybe relations between you and a loved one are strained.  With all these issues lined up in front of us, we’ve got enough to get started.

Now picture this: you and your family are now refugees. Each person, except for the baby, has a sack (without comfortable shoulder straps and certainly without wheels); someone has to carry both the baby and her sack. Along with these sacks, you now have another sack of problems. Leaving aside the bigger, more harrowing questions of danger, of political unrest and of the future, let’s just look at a few practical matters.

Among your small family (let’s say there are five of you), you don’t have enough food to satisfy anyone’s hunger for the next meal, and after that, there’s a small paper twist with some spices, and very little water. Everyone’s hot, everyone’s grimy and dusty, and you don’t know when you might wash next. The sole of one of the children’s shoes is beginning to come apart. You’ve all slept (if you can call it that) on the ground, so no one feels rested, and from all the walking yesterday, your calves are aching so much that it’s hard to take a normal step.


six-year-old girl in a refugee camp as a sand storm approaches


Now let’s look back at your first sack of problems, and see how they’re doing. You’ll notice that some of them have gone “poof!” Your stained jeans are no longer of any concern whatsoever when just having something to protect from sunburn and keep out the cold at night is all that matters. Those people not helping out on the phone? Whatever it was pales in comparison to all the official troubles you now have. A damaged credit score is fairly abstract when you no longer have access to any credit, or any of your money except the dwindling cash you have. Your new refugee status has simplified each of these problems.

But it has amplified others: the lower back pain is bound to get worse, and you have neither the luxury of rest or some gentle yoga while you listen to chimes, or any kind of medication to dull the pain. Whatever was causing the original nightmares for your child may or may not have sorted itself out, but now there’s so much more to wake in the night about, and your child could be having nightmares about all of it into the distant future.

The lump in your neck might turn out to be nothing, or it might be an early signal of something serious, but you don’t have access to medical care, and you don’t know when that will change. As for strained relations with a family member, that could go two ways. Deep trauma has a way of washing out the trivial; if I’m in a snit about something and then we have a near miss with physical danger of some kind, whatever irritation I felt before completely dissolves. But the strain of being a refugee is very likely to make many other kinds of strain much worse.


75-year-old refugee in Burma


Whatever new perspective might come because of a few minutes spent in a thought experiment like this, I hope that picturing ourselves as refugees might provide us with more than insight. I hope we’ll look for ways to do something for those who hemmed in by trouble. The number of people who are trudging through the reality of life as refugees grows daily (the current number is over 68 million), in circumstances hard to contemplate.

Maybe there is something local you can do to lend a hand. In the US at least, the current government is allowing in very few refugees, so agencies that help resettle refugees may be stymied. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing that can be done. Today is World Refugee Day (more about that here). There are various ways we can help, and the first step is becoming better informed. Here’s the latest from the International Rescue Committee, and from the UN refugee Agency,  UNHCR. If you know of organizations you feel are doing good work on refugee issues, I hope you’ll let me know in the comments. It’s going to take a lot more than a thought experiment to make a difference in the lives of the world’s refugees.

[Images:, UNHCR]

2 thoughts on “Simplifier, Amplifier

  1. Excellent piece, Lori. I am so distressed about what is happening to immigrant children in the US right now! Separation from family is a present trauma for all and and ongoing trauma for the children throughout their lives. I am donating to ACLU and to other organizations which will provide legal access to immigrant families.

    • Good for you–help for those families is so badly needed. I read this Washington Post article today that sheds some light on the assumptions that increase people’s fears but don’t line up with reality: Border Crossings

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