“Children are the most precious treasure a community can possess, for in them are the promise and guarantee of the future. They bear the seeds of the character of future society which is largely shaped by what the adults constituting the community do or fail to do with respect to children. They are a trust no community can neglect with impunity. An all-embracing love of children, the manner of treating them, the quality of the attention shown them, the spirit of adult behavior toward them — these are all among the vital aspects of the requisite attitude.” — Baha’i
Like so many of us, I too have been reflecting on separation of families at the United States border as families seek asylum and wondering, how do I respond? What is my role? How can I be of most service? And as information passes over my phone I am deeply troubled by the narrative that is shaping this conversation…
The conditions of the detention centers are good They have clean beds, go to classes, play games They are held in cages Children are in good spirits They have foils for blankets
It seems that what is driving the narrative is volatile and emotionally driven language, the importance of the physical conditions in which the children are placed and when attention is given to any reference to the children’s emotional well-being it is in the most glib of phrases. And what is most missing, is the voice of immigrants from people of non-Western descent. This is of vast concern and yet, should not surprise us. Our personal lives often reflect our outer reality. In a world in which value is measured by material means and wealth, our barometer becomes limited to the physical realm: Do we have potable water and food? Do we have a bed (of Western standards) and do the conditions of my space mirror the standard imposed by the West? Well-being becomes measured against a Western standard of health: Physical conditions, check. Neutral emotional conditions, check.
In the dialogue I have engaged in over immigration, especially childhood separation from parents, the physical conditions are never central to the experience and the emotions are far from neutral.
In the vast healing work I have engaged in over the past twenty-five years, both my own and that of others, here is what I have learned about childhood separation:
The body holds the memory
Our bodies are our greatest gifts in this material realm and their sole responsibility is to allow our spirit to walk this world. In this walk we will encounter so many challenges and difficulties, deep trials and tribulations, and our body will record them all.
Your story is not lost. It is yours to recover and tell.
My sister & I were young children when we fled our country due to religious persecution. My father along with many other Baha’is was imprisoned, tortured & eventually killed for being a Baha’i, and I was expelled from elementary school for the same reason. As Baha’is we weren’t allowed to get a passport to leave our country, so we fled with a tiny backpack with a group of other Baha’is in the dead of night. We traveled on camelback and on foot with very little food for an entire week with the constant fear of being caught & sent back to Iran. Once we arrived at the border in Pakistan, fully exhausted & completely malnourished, we were arrested and put in prison for being illegal immigrants. I can NOT imagine being separated from my mother in that fearful moment after everything we had been through. Eventually, through the efforts of the UN, we were released, given refugee status, and after three years they found a host country that was willing to take us in.
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I came to this country at the age of 8 without my parents. A loving aunt brought my sister and me. She and her family created a welcoming environment in those few months until my parents joined us. I remember ice cream sandwiches, tuna fish, Big Macs, all the foods I had never eaten before. We dressed up for Halloween and did other American stuff.
Even with all the loving efforts, I still often woke up in the middle of the night during those months feeling worried and wanting my mother. I was introduced to the Snoopy movie during that time, and what I remember most is the theme of being lost and the lyrics, “Snoopy, Snoopy come home.” That feeling of displacement in a new country where I didn’t speak the language and didn’t know what was going on half the time haunted me for years, and I still flash back on it at times.
Today I heard a journalist describe how wonderful the Walmart he visited was for the separated children, the basketball courts, the cafeteria…and all I could think was..he hasn’t a clue.
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When I was three my mother needed me to go from our home state to the state my father lived in and without familial support, utterly exhausted from her separation of a crippling marriage, she could not see other means of sending me than by hiring a stranger. I remember being told what a bubbly, sweet and precocious child I was and how excited I was to board a plane. I told the security guard at the gate I was on my way to “Kleenex” not knowing how to say Phoenix.
As I was handed over to a complete stranger and we walked away from my mother I remember melting inside, my body stiffened with fear and all I wanted to do was scream and run back to her. I didn’t understand why I was being given away.
I began to collapse and nobody could see it.
We boarded the plane and I was screaming, pulling at every and anything to get out…and no one could hear me. When the cabin door closed, I cried, my throat ached from the shrieks of loss and confusion…all happening internally. And then, it all went dark, I collapsed inside and was lost forever.
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We were five and three and my mother had tried to get us across the border before with her, but we were caught and returned. This time, she decided to send us ahead with a lady and a man. She would come later. My sister and I sat crying in the back seat all the way to the border. Close to the border, the lady turned around and sharply yelled, “Callense”. I saw my sister’s tears evaporate, her face turned to stone and she disappeared. This part of who she is would not come back again until she was attending college at UCLA. I don’t know where she went. I don’t know where I went either.
Emotional connection matters
The approach to emotion from a Western perspective has been to contain emotion by nullifying its existence. We see this in the stories we are told today about the treatment of the children separated from their families: No physical contact allowed, not among them or anyone else. No comforting of any kind.
This is not a new imposition from the West. The stories of horror told about the boarding schools young indigenous children of North America were forced to endure as they too were stripped from their families. There was no tolerance of and no support of any emotions.
In our own present day schools, teachers are told not to hug, not to touch students. In a society that insists on the physical realm being the most important, it has highly sexualized all physical interactions. Allowing for extremes of behavior and belief creates the conditions for perversions to surface. If we are to learn how to interact with each other outside of highly sexualized norms, we must be willing to move away from extremes of behaviors and open up the discourse of learning outside of one purview, in this case Western.
I remember when I was living and working among the indigenous people from the U’wa tribe of the Andes mountains in Colombia I had a powerful lesson on honoring emotions. As we moved from the fast-paced city of Bogota, to the towns and villages of the Foothills of the mountains to deep within the rainforest and the villages of the rainforest; I was struck by the change in sharp energy and most importantly, the lack of children crying. There were children to be sure, but the cries of pain, neglect and loss, seemed minimal, if not absent.
There was one evening we were invited to participate in the copara ceremony, the placing of the copara hat, a symbol to the community that a young lady had begun menstruating and would be of age to marry in a few years time. It was a ceremony that was to last all night, beginning at sunset and ending at sunrise. We gathered in one hut and as we did the villagers began to chant with the young girl in the center of the circle. The hut was packed with people swaying and chanting. There was a ceremonial drink passed around and smudging with herbs on a fire. The chanting told the story of their people, where they had come from, what they had endured and how they endured: the gifts of the environment, the reliance on a divine source that sustained them, the values they held of gratitude for each other, their food, their shelter. It was a story of resistance and a witnessing of triumph. As the hours passed the chanting and swaying only increased. The devotion of the singers was palpable. There were also no sharp edges. Some people left the hut to sit in the night air and when they were ready, they came back in the hut to join in. There was a rhythm they understood and everyone respected. At some point during the late hours of the night I saw one of the smaller children sitting near her mom, who was a singer, begin to cry. Her mother gently pulled her close to her chest as she continued singing and soothed her. The young girl continued to cry, and after a few minutes, it subsided and passed and she rest quietly on her mother’s chest. I was humbled to have witnessed such a beautiful honoring of emotions. Without any judgement of the space or the time in which the young child began to cry, the mother honored the emotions, while continuing to honor the space.
Moving away from false dichotomies
We often feel as if we need to choose: What is the right way? Do I do this or that? As if human beings and our emotions and the systems we live in are not more complex. This does not on the other end mean Anything goes!
These are the false dichotomies we create and our society thrives on telling us, it must be this or that. So long as the narrative stays in what appears to be opposing sides, it keeps the truth at bay and creates divisions, rather than a unified reality.
What moved me about the experience I had during the ceremony with the U’wa people, was the ability of the mother to honor her daughter’s needs, while also honoring the needs of the space. She moved as part of a seamless whole.
All of us matters, that includes our external and internal realities. How can we learn to not ignore the external conditions, while at the same time honor the internal reality and recognize them as part of a cohesive whole.
This is one minor part of the discussion of the separation of immigrant families. The larger part of this discourse cannot be lost on us: How is this horrific experience of immigrants symptomatic of the lack of recognition of the oneness of humanity?