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How Refugees’ Trauma Became ‘Currency’ in Resettlement

For many, seeking asylum requires repeatedly recounting your story, compounding its impact. Refugees feel pressured not only to prove persecution, but also that they’ve also been damaged by it. Betsy Joles reports from Malaysia.

Written by Betsy Joles Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Syrian men wait to submit their claims for processing at MAHAR, a partner organization of UNHCR and one of a limited number of Malaysian NGOs providing support for refugees.Betsy Joles

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Muddasir Ahmed Rajput didn’t know what to expect from his asylum interview with the United Nations in Kuala Lumpur. He worried he might have to take a lie detector test. He thought there might be a hidden camera in the room. When the U.N. resettlement officer asked why he left Pakistan, Rajput answered in the simplest way he could: “I told her the problem: There’s no future there.”

Rajput, 21, left his home in the Pakistani province of Punjab and requested asylum in Malaysia in 2013. He is part of the Ahmadiyya sect, a Sunni minority group deemed non-Muslim by Pakistani law. Members of the sect can be punished for blasphemy under the country’s penal code for practicing their religion in public.

“Did they hit you? Did they try to kill you?” he recalled the counselor asking. Though he didn’t have physical scars to show, he said he explained that being seen as a kafir or infidel in Pakistan meant persecution was ingrained in all aspects of society.

“The teacher will not drink from the same cup you drank from. She will throw it out. She won’t even touch your book,” he told Peacebuilding Deeply.

Rajput said being Ahmadiyya meant dealing with social stigmas in every aspect of his life. But he said people in his community fear that talking about this daily discrimination in their asylum interviews with the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) won’t be enough. They feel pressured to prove they’ve also been damaged by it. Rajput said this conflation of persecution with trauma within the humanitarian framework pushes refugees to use traumatic stories as a form of social currency.

“They feel that they have to exaggerate, or else they’ll be sent back.”

Dr. Renos Papadopoulos, a psychoanalyst from the University of Essex and U.N. consultant, said he’s seen through his work how refugees in Rajput’s position sometimes exaggerate their experiences to humanitarian organizations because they feel it will help them get the resources they need. “Our system sets them up for that,” he said.

“Whether they are traumatized or not, that’s none of our business,” he added.

The United Nations asylum process requires applicants to prove they have been persecuted or are in fear of future persecution. But in the humanitarian and mental-health fields, psychological and humanitarian support often depend on hierarchies of suffering and being able to prove trauma, Dr. Papadopoulos said. The repercussions of recounting trauma during the resettlement process could impact entire generations trying to rebuild their lives after being displaced.

Peter Ventevogel, senior mental health officer for the UNHCR, said trauma is not part of how the agency evaluates asylum or settlement claims. “A resettlement interview is not meant as a therapy session,” he said. “The goal is to get as much information is as needed to prepare a good, credible resettlement case.”

Once applicants finish their initial interviews, Ventevogel said the UNHCR connects refugees with NGOs in host countries to address possible mental-health problems. But these resources depend on the country where an asylum claim is accepted, and there are often more refugees in need than organizations on the ground can provide for.

In Malaysia, refugees do not have legal status and can’t access local medical or mental healthcare services available to citizens, making the limited number of NGOs operating in the country the main go-to for support, Ventevogel said.

Lara al-Shaar waits with her family at MAHAR. According to the United Nations, there are 158,620 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. Estimates of the unregistered refugee population range from 40,000 to more than 100,000. (Betsy Joles)

Mohamad Hasan al-Akraa, 18, spent most of his teenage life in Kuala Lumpur conflicted about whether or not to share his story. Al-Akraa left Aleppo with his family in 2012 when his parents feared escalating conflict in Syria was imminent. Al-Akraa’s family applied for asylum with UNHCR as soon as they arrived in Malaysia. They were granted refugee status six months later and were slotted for relocation to the U.S.

Al-Akraa did interviews with newspaper reporters and talked with NGO workers because he thought bringing attention to his family’s situation would help them be resettled.

“I always shared the same details,” al-Akraa said. “At age 12, I got a full-time job to support my family. At 14, I was arrested and imprisoned for working with a refugee permit.”

Stephen Paskey, former litigating attorney for the United States Department of Justice, saw this relationship between trauma and memoir play out in U.S. courtrooms where asylum decisions hinge on an individual’s recollection. “The only proof that they have of the things they’ve experienced is their testimony,” he said.

“It’s routinely the case that the judge will receive multiple versions of a story,” Paskey said. His research at the University of Buffalo details how deviations can be by-product of depression and post-traumatic stress, not fabrication.“If you put someone who has experienced trauma through that kind of experience, it’s likely to create inconsistencies.”

Paskey said changes in an applicant’s story can be flagged by judges as evidence of falsehood. But from his experience cross-examining asylum cases that are carried out over years, he said they can also signal psychological progress. “If a person’s story changes over time, it’s evidence that a person is healing,” he said.

But after six years waiting in Kuala Lumpur and repeating the same story, al-Akraa said he started feeling extremely guilty when he wasn’t able to help his family move to the U.S.. He began questioning whether there was a point in talking about his experiences in Malaysia.

“Sometimes I really feel like giving up on telling the story because I’m really tired of it,” he said. “Why am I telling my story even? What am I getting? I started kind of blaming myself.”

His relationship with his father deteriorated as he wrestled with feelings of resignation and apathy that his family might never get resettled. This turned into depression, which made him reluctant to talk about his situation altogether. He said stopped responding when U.N. counselors contacted him and chose not to tell them about his rocky home life.

“Really, I was too depressed to answer their tough questions,” he said.

Al-Akraa said he recalls 13 trips to the UNHCR office for meetings, without a clear roadmap for how the resettlement process would look, and how long it should take.

For families like al-Akraa’s going through the U.S. resettlement process, initial UNHCR interviews are followed by screenings with a contracted vetting group called the Resettlement Support Center. Cases are then referred to the Department of Homeland Security for further security clearance procedures, which would eventually give applicants the green light to travel, if they are approved.

Al-Akraa’s siblings Batoul and Hamoodi started attending informal refugee schools in Kuala Lumpur while waiting for word on whether their resettlement case will allow them to travel. “We only know that our file is in America. That’s all we know. We can’t take it back,” Batoul said. (Betsy Joles)

Being stuck in this resettlement purgatory makes healing and recovery even more difficult. Rajput, who began working at Ideas Academy, a school in Kuala Lumpur for U.N. refugees awaiting resettlement, has seen his students in various stages of the resettlement process wrestle with these challenges as they await word from host countries around the world.

Some of his pupils refuse to talk about their past experiences. But others have made their refugee status the bedrock of their identity. “Some of them wear it like it’s a badge,” Rajput said.

He said that attitude is usually associated with other behavioral issues like aggression, when students realize everyone else in the school is in the same position as they are. “That is their token to everything in their life: their story.”

Rajput said he’s trying to teach his students them not to think about trauma like a golden ticket. “I give them an environment that’s homelike and tell them that they have responsibility in society and they have responsibility in this school, too,” he said. “They should have self-respect and they should learn how to rely on themselves.”

Psychoanalyst Papadopoulos said resource scarcity reinforces what he calls “refugee identity.” This disempowers individuals, but can, paradoxically, be rewarded with additional greater psychological support by humanitarian organizations with limited capacity.

“[It] becomes over-fossilized and prevents other normalized identities from developing,” Papadopoulos said.

This can lead to serious mental health problems when asylum seekers feel they must constantly prove their pain, but never see any improvement to their situation.

Resettlement has become less of a priority for al-Akraa as he adapts to a life in Malaysia. He started organizing events through his own initiative called the Al-Hasan volunteer network, spoke at a TEDx event in Kuala Lumpur, and recently finished his first semester in university. With the most recent Supreme Court decision in the United States to block refugees from Syria, al-Akraa knows his family’s case will likely be stalled for the foreseeable future – and he’s come to terms with that.

Hasan, Batoul and Hamoodi outside their apartment in the northern outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. “It’s a continuous story. It never ends. My story never ends. Life goes on and still so many things will happen day by day,” Hasan said. “Yeah, it’s just that.” (Betsy Joles)

“If I get resettlement, I’ll say OK, fine. If I don’t get resettlement, I’ll say OK. I don’t really care about it,” he said. “My family cares. For me, I just want to live today and work for tomorrow.”

From Rajput’s own experience and watching young people in his classes, he said his greatest challenge is explaining to students that mobility isn’t only dependent on how you tell your story. Part of his work is bolstering other parts of their identity that aren’t tied to the resettlement timeline. Whether or not they’ve experienced trauma, this can help them think about life beyond their immigration status.

“You are just like any other student,” he says he tells them. “Don’t drag it with you.”

This story originally appeared on Peacebuilding Deeply.

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