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Survivor’s guilt and my refugee

Map showing destination countries of refugees ...

Map showing destination countries of refugees /asylum seekers (= people fleeing abroad) in 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think Mr O is suffering survivor’s guilt.  I must stress, I am not a psychologist. I am a wife. Mr O’s wife. While this is intensely personal, we are sharing it to help others understand the life of a refugee.  Maybe help other refugees, feeling alone and sad, why they may be feeling that way.  Yes, Mr O arrived in Australia, the second time, on a partner visa.  The first time he arrived on a false passport as an asylum seeker.  Just because we got married does not stop Mr O being a refugee.  All it means is he has a partner visa rather than a protection visa.  Reality isn’t changed by the type of visa.

We were talking this evening and I could see the the emotional pain he was suffering.  We talked about the possibility he is suffering survivor’s guilt as I have read quite a bit about it over the years.  I explained survivor’s guilt to him in terms of a plane crash.  Four hundred people are killed in the crash and the fifty who survive feel guilty for surviving.  Sadly, even if this label is correct, it doesn’t help him deal with it any more easily than if there were no label.  It is what it is.

I turned to my old friend Google and searched “survivor guilt refugees”.  Sure enough the results scrolled up on the screen – lots of results, over 22 million results.  Clearly survivor’s guilt is a recognised problem for many refugees.

One result in particular caught my eye.

Survivor’s guilt has been identified as a problem common to many refugees that negatively impacts a healthy psychosocial adjustment (Brown, 1982; Lin et al., 1982; Tobin and Friedman, 1983).  Successfully fleeing from dangerous conditions, many refugees left behind family members and friends who did not or could not escape.  After reaching safety, refugees reported being haunted by feelings of guilt, especially knowing the danger still facing those who were left behind.  The awareness that people who remained at home are alive, possibly suffering, and living in unpleasant conditions may heighten survivor’s guilt and contribute to emotional stress. … Survivor’s guilt can continue in a spiral of pain, sadness and guilt that causes barriers to enjoying the safety, success and sense of well-being in the resettlement country.

Counseling Refugees: A Psychosocial Approach to Innovative Multicultural Interventions

 By Fred Bemak, Rita Chi-Ying Chung, Paul Pedersen

The book goes on to talk about the process of healing.

Mr O has old friends and relatives he loves dearly trying to survive in a country where the masses (I quote) are struggling to survive and the conditions get ever worse.  Tonight he was telling me some things that are truly awful, how even with the husband and wife both working there is a not enough food to go around, let alone anything for school.  Wages are often not paid.  He worries one minute there will be another civil war, then says no, the pain of the last one is still to much for the people.

Of course, my husband knows he cannot save the whole of his homeland.  He knows even though we are still struggling to pay the debts incurred from the battle, we are still much better off than those suffering in Nigeria.

“What makes people so greedy?”, he asked me.  I have no idea, I have no answer for him.  He told me about an article he read where a government minister resigned because he could not stop the corruption in his department.  The minister tried so hard, but failed.   Mr O has certain perspectives about the causes of the problems in his homeland.  I am not going to go into those for I do not want to speak for him in that regard.  He will make any decision to share his views at some time in the future.

To those people who think once a refugee arrives here it is all peaches and cream and the refugees are so happy, trust me, this is not necessarily the case.  I’ve always known Mr O feels terrible guilt that his driver was killed in place of him so many years ago.  I know he feels he should be caring for his driver’s children.  I believe, listening to him tonight, there is a deeper pain and sadness.  He cries in his heart for the people he cannot help, feeling guilty our children are getting three meals a day when so many are not.

When I first met Mr O there was no survivor guilt because at that point he had not yet “survived”. He was still living in limbo and fear.

Now, with a driver’s licence, a job, permanent residency, children doing well in school, food on the table and a roof over our heads, now it is different.  Now the survivor’s guilt has surfaced.  I have felt something bothering Mr O for a few weeks, but he would say “No, I am fine, love” every time I asked.  He didn’t sound fine to me, but I couldn’t really put my finger on it.  Clearly, neither could he.  It was only when he opened up and started talking tonight that I remembered some of the articles I had read in the past about survivor’s guilt and thought to myself that how Mr O was speaking sounded awfully like the descriptions I had read.

He will often say, out of the blue, “Such is life”. This is always a strong indication he has had a flashback.  He hit his head at work once and that gave him flashbacks for quite a few days.

I believe Mr O battles the feeling.  He knows he should be happy or relieved he is in the situation he is in now, after so many years seeking a safe haven.  He loves me, he loves his children, he loves his job.  He doesn’t really understand why he feels sad and that confuses him even more.  I am hoping, now we have looked at the possibility of this being survivor’s guilt, we may be able to move into a healing phase.

Mr O still has trouble sleeping, yet having a very physical job he needs sleep.  At the moment he is in a pattern of sleeping from about 8 pm to 10 pm, then being up for two hours, then sleeping from midnight to around 5 am.  It is impossible for him to sleep seven hours straight, but this is an improvement on his earlier sleeping patterns.

I am trying to find some documentation about healing survivor’s guilt.

I have written before that refugees usually never wanted to leave their homelands.  They leave to survive.  They don’t hate their homelands – far from it, they love what they perceive their homeland could be.  They are often haunted by why it isn’t the way they would like it to be. They leave behind so many they love.  Even once they are safe and building a new life, the road is not as smooth as so many critics would like to have us believe.  Walk a mile in a man’s shoes before thinking you know what he feels.

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About Robyn Oyeniyi

We fought to be together as a team, we are now together as a team. Team Oyeniyi

8 comments on “Survivor’s guilt and my refugee

  1. It can’t be easy having to leave ones home behind and start afresh elsewhere… He could use some therapy and reassurance that he did nothing wrong. {{{HUGS}}}

  2. Sorry that Mr O is suffering, totally understandable that he wishes he could right all the wrongs in his country. Should he maybe have some therapy to deal with this?

    • That is definitely an option Sami.

      We will see how he manages for a week or so now that he has been able to read about it and understand why he is feeling the way he is.

      You know men, Sami, they don’t like to think about therapy. :)

  3. Thank you for sharing a glimpse of the struggle for Mr O. My wish and hope is that your family thrives through this struggle especially you Mr O :-))

    • Stephen, we will get through it. Now we recognise it, we will get through it. Just takes time, I understand.

      Two people stepped up on Twitter with information, one a refugee saying she suffered for years, another saying it is not acknowledged nearly enough.

      • I must admit I was really at a loss for words in my first comment. Felt as though anything I had to say would be so inconsequential. Men don’t seek therapy because of our up bring. It was perceived as a weakness but that is so false. Strength is to speak out and seek support.
        Thank you Mr and Mrs O Go Team Oyeniyi

      • Thank you Stephen.

        I recognise when we publish “good” stuff it is easy for people to comment. When we share the hard stuff, it is difficult often for people to know what to say.

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