Assisting refugees: Lessons on trauma and resilience


Lao wedding in the U.S.

Making do with what you’ve got

 There are a lot of stories about refugees in the news. Some years ago, I helped resettle refugees from the Vietnam War. Trauma and resilience define what it means to be a refugee. All of them had lived through years of warfare. They had seen friends and family members killed. They had to flee the familiar towns and villages they had lived in all their lives. They arrived in a new country with hardly any resources, in a land where nobody spoke their language or understood their customs. Could you do that?

What they did possess was resilience. You had to believe that somehow, you would survive, despite all the horrors that you had already experienced. Those who didn’t simply did not become refugees. They couldn’t or wouldn’t give up everything they knew, risk death or imprisonment if caught, and wait in limbo for years in a refugee camp. All that and more, for the less than certain possibility of admission to some country willing to take them in. Here is a story about my interaction with one of them.

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Sopath (not his real first name) was from Cambodia, in his mid-fifties, had just arrived in the U.S. and was not talkative even in his native language. His entire work experience, from what my interpreter could gather, consisted of pulling a plow behind a water buffalo. And I was supposed to find him a job.

Running the employment section of a refugee resettlement program, I had dealt with these kinds of issues before, but this case felt different. When refugees were referred to my program, most were understandably anxious. A few were actually enthusiastic. In my experience, the Lao as a people tended to be gregarious and chatty, while Cambodians like Sopath were usually more formal and reserved. His affect was totally flat.

Working through my interpreter, I tried to collect a few more details about his life. But he simply was not present. It was as if the “Farmer, water buffalo” comment was as much as he could manage.

I looked through his file to see if I could learn anything else. I couldn’t figure why the communists had targeted him, since farming is as inoffensive a job as I could imagine. So little about that regime made any sense. The Khmer Rouge had killed between one and a half to three million of their own people. They killed people simply for wearing glasses. They assumed they were intellectuals.

Sopath had spent the last several years in a refugee camp, where, among other things, he had done well enough in English class to be placed in my employment program. It appeared that he had recently learned the fate of some family members. Before the war, he had a wife and ten children. Now he had two children. Everyone else was dead. That realization probably dominated his life.

Speaking through my interpreter, I said, “I cannot imagine what you have seen or what you are feeling now. But one thing is true in America. It is true in Cambodia. You have two children. You are their father. You must care for them, yes?”

He slowly nodded.

“So, what kind of work do you think you could do?”

After some prodding by my interpreter, the answer came back. “Farmer.”

Now, I’m not sure what kind of response I was hoping for, but that was not it. As a condition of receiving public assistance, people in my employment program were required to do “job search,” actively look for employment. Ideally, I would help them to identify leads and even place them in positions. At minimum, I was required to document that they had applied for at least five jobs every week.

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8 ways people recover from post childhood adversity syndrome


Cutting-edge research tells us that experiencing childhood emotional trauma can play a large role in whether we develop physical disease in adulthood. In Part 1 of this series we looked at the growing scientific link between childhood adversity and adult physical disease. This research tells us that what doesn’t kill you doesn’t necessarily make you stronger; far more often, the opposite is true.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)—which include emotional or physical neglect; verbal humiliation; growing up with a family member who is addicted to alcohol or some other other substance, or who is depressed or has other mental illness; and parental abandonment, divorce, or loss — can harm developing brains, predisposing them to autoimmune disease, heart disease, cancer, depression, and a number of other chronic conditions, decades after the trauma took place.

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Trauma-informed Uber?


By Jeremy Loudenback,

As Los Angeles County mulls the idea of using ride-sharing services to escort foster youth to visitations with biological parents, some child-welfare experts wonder how such a service would be able to grapple with children with significant experiences of trauma and loss.

Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors members Sheila Kuehl and Mike Antonovich submitted a motion last week calling for improved family visitation, including the idea of exploring whether ride-sharing companies like Uber, Lyft or HopSkipDrive could transport children and family members to important family visits.

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We need to understand how to provide trauma-informed care



Beverly Tobiason, clinical director, Pima County (AZ) Juvenile Court Center

By Beverly Tobiason

The philosophy of trauma-informed care is becoming more and more embedded in the philosophies and practices of child-serving agencies.

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7 ways childhood adversity changes a child’s brain



If you’ve ever wondered why you’ve been struggling a little too hard for a little too long with chronic emotional and physical health conditions that just won’t abate, or feeling as if you’ve been swimming against some invisible current that never ceases, a new field of scientific research may offer hope, answers, and healing insights.

Violence is just one part of childhood trauma. So why are we focusing so much on childhood violence?


Whac-A-Mole players (photo by Laura)

Many people and organizations focus on preventing violence with the belief that if our society can stop violence against children, then most childhood trauma will be eradicated.

However, research that has emerged over the last 20 years clearly shows that focusing primarily on violence prevention – physical and sexual abuse, in particular – doesn’t eliminate the trauma that children experience, and won’t even prevent further violence.

“Although violence can beget violence, it’s hardly the only cause of violence,” says Dr. Vincent Felitti, co-principal investigator of the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study), groundbreaking epidemiological research that showed a direct link between 10 types of childhood trauma and the adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence, among many other consequences.

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A working ranch integrates ACEs and animals into treatment for teens

HorseCU Although it’s too soon to tell if integrating trauma-informed and resilience-building practices based on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) sciences is making a difference for the teens living at Home on the Range, a residential treatment center in Sentinel Butte, ND, it’s made a huge difference for the people who work there. They now understand that kids aren’t born bad.

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