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Immigrants and Refugees

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Aside from the many political, cultural and economic aspects of the present refugee crisis in Europe, it is also crucial to consider the psychological element. In our fast-changing world, globalisation, advances in communication technology, fast travel, terrorism and now the refugee crisis make psychoanalytic investigation of the Other a major necessity.Psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan, who left Cyprus for the US as a young man, brings his own experiences as an immigrant to bear on this study of the psychology of immigrants and refugees, and of those who cross paths with them.In Part I, case examples illustrate the impact of traumatic experiences, group identity issues, and how traumas embedded in the experience of immigrants and refugees can be passed down from one generation to the next. Part II focuses on the host countries, considering the evolution of prejudice and how fear of newcomers can affect everything from international politics to the way we behave as individuals. Volkan also considers the psychology of borders, from the Berlin Wall to Donald Trump. He argues that it is not enough to sympathise with the material plight of people who have left their homes; we must also strive to understand the mental health issues caused by their uprooting.

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Chapter One - Psychoanalytic Theories on Adult Immigrants and Refugees

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There are many variables involved in the immigration experience. Newcomers differ in respect to their ages, psychological makeup, and the support system that is available to them. Babies and small children, without having stabilized object constancy of people, pets, and things left behind, cannot be “typical” immigrants or refugees like their parents. León and Rebecca Grinberg (1989) stated that, “Parents may be voluntary or involuntary emigrants, but children are always ‘exiled’: they are not the ones who decide to leave and they cannot decide to return at will” (p. 125). In this chapter I write about adults as dislocated persons.

Dislocation takes place on a spectrum, ranging from “forced immigration” (a term that does not do justice to the actual tragedy of Africans brought to America as slaves and their descendents, or at the present time people escaping places such as Syria), to the voluntary immigration of individuals seeking a better life for themselves and their families. In cases of voluntary immigration, integration into a new country is generally smoother than the adaptation by a refugee, if the individual's psychological makeup does not present complications. A refugee is in the position of feeling pressured, consciously and unconsciously, from the outset of relocation to prove that, “he is worthy of the mercy bestowed on him by the land that receives him. He lives with an urgent need to assimilate and to adapt. His rage against the land which he was forced to leave makes him repudiate and repress many attachments of the past. He feels guilt toward those whom he left behind in danger” (Wangh, 1992, p. 17). These factors combine to frustrate a person's integration into a new country and culture. Obviously, the situation is more tragic and even more complex in cases of “forced immigration.”

 

Chapter Two - Mourning and Perennial Mourning

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Mourning is an obligatory response to a significant loss. Adult immigrants and refugees are obliged to carry out a review of images of what they left behind. In some cases such a process seemingly stops preoccupying the individual's mind in the long run; in other cases such preoccupations, in one way or another, remain active. Because response to the loss of a significant object, once initiated, moves through different recognizable phases, we can easily assume that if the passage through any of these is complicated, an immigrant or refugee may be fixated at that particular stage. In that event, manifestations expectable in that stage will be exaggerated, and the individual's psychological state will be further complicated by reflecting the complications as well as adaptations.

In this chapter I will focus on individuals whom we see in psychotherapy or psychoanalysis whose clinical pictures reflect various manifestations after the loss of an important person. Death is the most concrete of losses. In our response to it we see the residue of all other incomplete, forced, or hurried separations. By reviewing observations of how people respond to the death of a significant person, we can prepare ourselves to examine immigrants’ or refugees’ reactions to losses, not only losses of individuals they leave behind or individuals who die while escaping with them, but also losses of land, familiar things, security, honor, and prestige. Their reactions to such losses, especially in cases of forced immigration, are usually linked to other traumas. After examining aspects of mourning in this chapter, in the chapters that follow I will tell stories of newcomers’ responses to dislocation experiences including, in Chapter Seven, the story of a refugee family five years after they had to escape to a new location.

 

Chapter Three - Newcomers’ Linking Objects, Linking Phenomena, and Nostalgia

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Immigrants, internally displaced persons, and refugees exhibit various aspects of grief reactions and manifestations of the mourning process described in the previous chapter. If persons significant to them do not die while they are escaping from one location to another one, the newcomers focus more on the loss of the “average expectable environment,” which includes not only people but also non-human objects and sometimes pets. We need to consider the historical and political environment in studying the newcomer's mourning process. In the United States I have met many individuals, mostly elderly persons, who, after settling in the United States, never went back to their original countries to see their parents and relatives. Even when they were voluntary immigrants, historical and economic factors prevented them from making visits to their homelands. Today, with the means to travel quickly, visiting places left behind is much easier, unless there are politically induced obstacles. Recently I worked with an Iranian man who had been jailed by the Iranian authorities six years ago due to his political ideas. After he managed to escape from Iran to a country in Europe with his wife and child, even though he wanted to go back to his original country, if only for short visits, he could not do so or he would risk being caught and jailed again. Although he has a comfortable professional position in the new country, he is spending time and energy to find legal and political means to visit Iran. His situation obviously affects his mourning process. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, Article 13(2), states: “Everyone has a right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” A person's inalienable human rights, if they may be exercised, help to facilitate the internal ability to mourn. In today's world such rights are taken away from many who are escaping to other countries voluntarily or involuntarily.

 

Chapter Four - Relocated Children and their Unconscious Fantasies

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Before focusing on immigrants and refugees who are children, first let us look at how children react to loss. Very small children do not have a firmly established mental representation of another person (or thing). As described long ago by Robert Furman (1973) and Erna Furman (1974), young children cannot mourn as adults do. Pre-oedipal children who lose important figures in their lives sense that something is missing, a sensation not unlike the feeling of being hungry. In order to understand how any given small child is likely to react to a significant loss, such as the death of a parent, there are a number of considerations: the child's age, the type of loss, the security of the home environment, the ability of the adults to provide substitutes, and innate resiliency. The more experience a growing child had with the lost person or thing, and the more she is able to maintain the mental representation of the one who has been lost, the closer the child's mourning will be to an adult's. Even though they learn what death is on one level, very young children's belief in its reversibility remains, however hidden it may be. Pre-adolescent children will have a realistic concept of death and its finality.

 

Chapter Five - Living Statues

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This chapter describes another psychological factor that influences the internal world of a child immigrant's or refugee's internal world: parents may unconsciously “deposit” their traumatized self-and object images related to dislocation into the developing self-representation of their child and give him different tasks to deal with such images. Depositing is closely related to identification in childhood, but it is in some ways significantly different from identification. In identification, the child is the primary active partner in taking-in and assimilating an adult's images and owning that person's ego and superego functions. In depositing, the adult is the primary active person who plants specific images into the developing self-representation of the child. In other words, the child is used, mostly unconsciously, as a permanent reservoir for certain self- and other images belonging to the adult. The experiences that created these mental images in the adult are not accessible to the child. Yet, those mental images are pushed into the child, without the experiential/contextual framework that created them (Volkan, 1988, 2013, 2014c, 2015; Volkan, Ast & Greer, 2002). This type of transgenerational transmission, mixed with the children's or babies’ own fantasies, will cause their new lives in a different country to take various directions. Memories of infants’ own experiences in wars, war-like situations, and during forced migrations are not available to them when they are grown-up. The way that parents perceive and treat the infant during these traumatic conditions; the way they transmit their fear, anxiety, and other emotions to him; and the images they “put in” the infant's developing self-representation may casue the infant to evolve as a “living statue” (Volkan, 1979). I will relate here the stories of two such living statues.

 

Chapter Six - Double Mourning: Adolescents as Immigrants or Refugees

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Anna Freud (1958), Erik Erikson (1963), Peter Blos (1968, 1979), and other psychoanalysts have described how the adolescence passage, the period of life between childhood and adulthood, is dominated by alternating regressive and progressive movements related to disengagement from early object images. Adolescents exhibit various observable behavior patterns, such as devaluing parents while idealizing a movie star or a peer group, rebelling against authority while searching for and submitting to a self-chosen leader, seeking quick success, and demonstrating quick frustration. They are also preoccupied with gender differentiation. Under these observable behavior patterns they are involved in many battles of earlier years. As Erik Erikson (1963) stated, after these battles, this period of turmoil ends with the consolidation of the individual's identity; or in Peter Blos’ (1968, 1979) term, a second individuation occurs.

Martha Wolfenstein (1966, 1969) argued that the “normal” adolescent passage provides a model for an adult type of mourning. Youngsters learn how to modify or even let go of childhood images and change, to one extent or another, mental representations of others who were subjects of their childhood attachments and other types of intense relationships. Since immigration, especially forced immigration, also presents losses and gains, dislocation from a familiar place to a foreign one leads to youngsters combining their internal and external turmoil; they face what Amsterdam-based psychoanalyst Jelly van Essen has called, “double mourning” (Van Essen, 1999, p. 30).

 

Chapter Seven - A Refugee Family's Story

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Refugees struggle with attempts to integrate the images of what was left behind with what they face in their new environment. The nature and severity of other traumas they go through before, during, and following their dislocations are also inflamed and complicated by legal, cultural, religious, political, and medical issues, as well as security concerns. When there is a flood of refugees to a place, local authorities, as well as helpers from international organizations, become busy with immediate, practical matters. Tackling such matters does not leave time for in-depth investigations of refugees’ internal worlds. Finding the newcomers bread to eat, clothes to wear, and a safe place to sleep supersedes considerations for psychological care, especially individualized in-depth psychological care. When there are organizations in the host country offering psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals—very seldom psychoanalysts—to consult and treat refugees, only lucky ones like Kuno receive long-term psychotherapy. As I described in the last chapter, Jelly van Essen has explained some of the reasons why conducting psychotherapy with refugees is difficult. Here we should also remember the language issue. The newcomer is unlikely to speak the therapist's language and the therapist will have to use an interpreter. The presence of an interpreter translating another refugee's words to a foreign therapist will influence the patient–therapist interactions—especially when the interpreter has also likely been a refugee, with all the difficulties that entails. The therapist's human responses, ranging from experiencing intense empathy for the refugee, to witnessing human cruelty, to feeling helpless, may make it difficult for the therapist to hold on to her therapeutic identity.

 

Chapter Eight - Prejudice on a Psychoanalytic Couch

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We may all decry prejudice, but in truth we are all prejudiced—it is an element of who we are as human beings. It can be benign, hostile, or even malignant (Parens, 1979). In this book my focus is not on pairs of individualized sameness and difference, such as black and white, female and male, gay and straight, rich and poor, but rather on us and them. I focus on situations where tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people share the same or similar prejudice against another large group and, keeping the theme of this book in mind, against newcomers. This kind of large-group prejudice can also be benign, hostile, or malignant.

In Part I, clinical findings and theoretical explanations on mourning and its complications were first presented in order to develop an understanding of the psychology of immigrants and refugees; the following chapters then looked at how immigrants and refugees cope with losing their original environment, people, and things, and their attempts to adjust to their new locations. In Part II, before I focus on people's reactions to newcomers, I will once more present clinical data. This time I will illustrate how we notice and explain the reasons for the appearance of prejudice in patients. I will present data from a patient who was not an immigrant or refugee. I will illustrate the reasons for his prejudice against his newcomer analyst who spoke English with an accent. When an individual's prejudice is observed while he is on an analytic couch, it can be examined under a psychoanalytic microscope and factors leading to such an attitude can be observed clearly. In the next chapter I will examine how prejudice about the Other who belongs to a different large-group identity evolves during developmental years and how shared prejudice is formed.

 

Chapter Nine - The Other

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Before focusing on prejudice against refugees and immigrants, I will review psychoanalytic findings about why individuals have prejudice and how societal prejudice evolves. This review is necessary for understanding why many persons in the host country, or even in the same country but in a different region, are sometimes afraid of newcomers, even the many who have suffered a great deal.

Scientific observations of infants during recent decades have taught us that an infant's mind is more active than we originally thought (see, for example, Bloom, 2010; Emde, 1991; Lehtonen, 2003; Stern, 1985). Studies on psychobiological potential for we-ness and bias toward our own kind are taking place. We are also observing how a sense of “we-ness” is passed to toddlers in the very early mother–child relationship. For example, researchers have found significant relations between aspects of Native American toddler socioemotional development and maternal reports of stress, and drug and/or alcohol use, but also, interestingly, Native American identity (Frankel, Croy, Kubicek, Emde, Mitchell & Spicer, 2014). Because the environment of the infant and very small child is restricted to parents, siblings, relatives, and other caregivers, the extent of “we-ness” does not include a distinct intellectual and emotional dimension of ethnicity, nationality, or other types of large-group identity. In the introductory chapter I stated that, as far as tribal affiliation, nationality, ethnicity, religion, or political ideology are concerned, infants and small children are generalists (Erikson, 1956). The subjective experience and deep intellectual knowledge of belonging to a large-group identity develops later in childhood.

 

Chapter Ten - Border Psychology and Fear of Newcomers

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This chapter will examine newcomers as the Other who passes through the border surrounding the host people. To illustrate the appearance and consequences of shared prejudice against displaced people and immigrants, especially when there is an influx of newcomers from a different cultural, religious, or linguistic background, I will return to my big tent metaphor (Volkan, 2003a) and examine border psychology.

Here we must think in terms of how individuals learn to wear two main layers, like fabric, from the time they stabilize their memberships in an ethnic or other type of large group during their childhood or from the time they join a cult, guerrilla, or terrorist group during their adulthood. The first layer, the individual layer, fits each of them snugly, like clothing. It is one's core personal identity, which provides an inner sense of persistent sameness for the individual (Erikson, 1956). The second layer is like the canvas of a big tent, which is loose fitting, but allows a huge number of individuals to share a sense of sameness with others under the same large-group tent. Threads that make up the canvas of the tent are primarily shared identifications and shared “good” targets of externalization. As Maurice Apprey (1993) illustrates in his writings on African American large-group identity, others’—in this case white Americans’—externalizations and projections can be absorbed into the fabric of the large-group tent's canvas. In order to understand this last idea, picture two large-group tents side by side. Individuals in the first tent throw mud, excrement, and refuse—that is, they externalize their “bad” images of themselves and others, and project their own unwanted thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and expectations—onto the canvas of the second tent. Note that this action is taken toward the large-group identity itself, the canvas, and not necessarily toward the individuals who possess this group identity. The stain left from the mud, excrement, and refuse is absorbed into the identity of the large group that receives it. The “bad” images, thoughts, and affects that are externalized, projected, or displaced by the neighboring large group can become a component of the receiver group's large-group identity. Apprey concludes that American white people's perceptions of black people have been assimilated into the African American large-group identity experience. He sees how black-on-black crime has become a modified version of the mental representation of white–black historical interactions. Other designs reflect many types of cultural, religious, and historical amplifiers (Mack, 1979).

 

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