After nine attempts to sneak across the border between Syria and Turkey, with an indescribable amount of fear and painful near-death experiences, 31-year-old Mustafa Hamed finally found a home in Germany, where he is working hard to piece together his life.
“The most important thing is you are lost here. So you have to find a new job, new friends — you have to find a new life,” Hamed said. “So this is a new start for me.”
His priority right now is mastering the language. His dream is to work in journalism. As he works hard to achieve this dream, he constantly struggles with a nightmare — the memory of his days in Aleppo.
“The clashes started in Aleppo in, maybe, 2012,” he recalled. “You can imagine, it was daily and you can hear every night bombing someplace near you — maybe for just two kilometers [away]. The electricity was cut down for a long time. You have to wait for 7 or 8 hours just to charge your phone.”
Resetting their lives
Psychologist and researcher Kenneth Miller, in his book War Torn: Stories of Courage, Love and Resilience, recounts Hamed’s story, among many others from Guatemala, Mexico, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka.
During his more than 25 years of working with war victims, Miller noticed that the majority of what has been written about war focuses on soldiers. He wanted to draw attention to what’s missing from the conversation: the experience of civilians. In his book, he shares dozens of stories of people he met and worked with in many places around the world.
One of the most compelling stories is from Samad Khan, an Afghan who became a refugee in the 1980s, during his country’s war against the Soviets. Khan participated in Miller’s research in Afghanistan. In one of the counseling sessions on dealing with painful experiences, Khan shared a traumatic memory.
“He was driving a pickup truck with his sister’s family in the back, up a steep, winding mountain road and the road was controlled by the Mujahedeen, the freedom fighters,” Miller said. “They stopped him at one point and asked him to show his papers. So he stopped the car, and got out to show them his papers, but he realized he had forgotten to set the hand brake. He watched in horror as the truck spiraled off the side of the mountain and tumbled hundreds of feet down to the valley below. He had to go down to retrieve the bodies and bring them back to Kabul for burial.”
However, when Miller met him, Khan was a life-loving community leader. “I said, ‘How did you get over this? You seem to be doing so well now!’ He said it was a combination of the power of his faith and he also had a tremendous support of his extended family and friends,” Miller explained. “They got him through. I tell his story because this is something that recurs in the book, in every country that I worked in, that we are more alike than we are different. His story also captures something that we’ve seen in a lot of refugee communities, which is war, of course, can be devastating, but we’re built to heal. If the conditions are supportive, safe and stable, people have a remarkable capacity to be resilient and to heal.”
When the environment is safe and supportive, Miller says, refugees not only survive painful experiences, but they can thrive.
He tells another story, based on his experience in Guatemala:
“I got adopted by this one family while I was living in the camp for a year. This family fled when they heard about a massacre in a neighboring village where about 370 people were killed. They spent two months hiding in the mountains in the rainy season. They finally came down on the Mexican side of the border and found their way in to the refugee camp. This young fellow, Emilio, had developed a combination of trauma and severe shock. After a couple of days of traditional prayers and use of herbs, he healed. I think more than anything what really helped him heal was this tremendous love and support of his family. He has become a vibrant young professional musician, he became a refugee in Canada, who is doing wonderfully well.”
The social media effect
Miller says he hopes sharing these stories can help raise awareness about refugees’ situations.
“One of the biggest predictors about whether the refugees become severely depressed or adapt successfully is the extent to which they’re either made to feel welcome, given language and the material resources to get a new start, or whether they encounter a lot of discrimination. The more people feel marginalized and discriminated, of course, the harder it is for them to integrate, and the harder it is for them to heal,” he said.
One point Miller raises is the effect of social media. He says these tools can be helpful in raising awareness about the plight of refugees, but they also can be harmful if they’re used to spread misconceptions.
He points to images shared on social media of Syrian refugees on Lesbos, Greece. “When you see this father holding his two children and weeping and just arriving safely after crossing the sea, it mobilizes people and brings them to want to help, do something to counter this. Now, on the other hand, you also see social media being used to spread rumors and lies about refugees. Social media can spread tremendous fear, and that has serious consequences. It gets people turned back. It causes great harm.”
Miller says he also hopes these stories can inspire refugees and help them discover the inner strength they need to survive and start anew.