Project Compassion in Action

As of January, 2021, there are 178,710 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia alone. Some 154,140 are from Myanmar and 24,560 refugees and asylum-seekers are from fifty countries fleeing war and persecution. Asylum-seekers from Myanmar are served by a robust network of NGOs. Support mechanisms for the others is more limited. I was introduced to this population whilst living in Malaysia, where I worked as a Clinical Counsellor for an NGO, counselling refugees and asylum-seekers, men, women, and children, from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. In 2018, I conducted an in-depth study with an aim to provide understanding of the lived experience of grief due to the profound impact of loss, conflict and displacement on the individuals.

The study was a serendipitous coming together of my interest in and passion for people, personal experience of grief and creative experimentation as a therapist and researcher over the past thirty years. I have come to appreciate the needs of this population and can attest to the lack of available resources refugees and asylum-seekers require, education services, health, legal, and social services.  It demands the building of strategic relationships with all these sectors as well as government and non-government divisions. The absence of a strong network negatively impacts the mental-health of this population. In fact, most refugees with mental health issues will never receive suitable services.

My practice included twenty-five refugees and asylum seekers during a five-day work week. They presented with a range of symptoms: anger, depression, despair, distress, hopelessness, sadness, suicidal ideation, PTSD, as well as complicated grief. My curiosity about their resilience has led to the desire to understand the breadth and depth of this population’s felt experience of grief and ultimately gain insight into their unique and subjective experience of grief and loss.

The concepts of “Mean Making”, “People-making”, and “Bearing Witness”, have been central to my life personally and professionally. Therapy has helped me to understand my own grief story and therapy informed my creative choices to reconcile and accept the events as well to embrace my own grief story. This process has informed my counselling approach with individuals suffering from grief and loss. I had not been exposed to the uniqueness of the grief and loss suffered by the vulnerable and most resilient refugee population until working in Kuala Lumpur with this population.

My sense was that they were not only suffering from grief that in fact their trauma was anchored in grief. In other words, grief underlies trauma and trauma is the symptomatic response as much as it is a result of an event. The sadness in these people and their helplessness and hopelessness spoke to me. When interviewed they shared that they had lost loved ones, belongings, countries, and their lives. They fled for their lives and came to Malaysia because it was a Muslim country, thinking it would be safe and welcoming. Actually, it is a non-signatory country which makes it easier for asylum-seekers to enter but in truth Malaysia is not a safe country for them. They suffer at the hands of police who shake them down for what little money they have and/or harass them for protection money. They watch them for documentation issues keen to throw them in jail where horrible things occur. They are Shia in a Suni country and aren’t permitted to pray in the mosques and if someone dies in their family no Imam will offer a funeral service. The Shariya police are on the look-out for them and continuously surveil their movements. They say they live in Limbo waiting for placement to the West. They, adults and children alike, are beaten in the streets, in elevators, alleys, and stores, spat upon and humiliated publicly. This is their everyday!

As if all that weren’t enough Covid-19 pandemic struck the globe, leaving us all unprotected. Asylum-seekers and refugees are especially vulnerable during the Pandemic. According to a recent WHO survey Covid-19 pandemic has impacted mental health in most countries. In fact, it has either halted or disrupted mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide. Residents of most countries have managed this disruption to in-person health service with access to telemedicine. However, refugees have no such availability to such services.  Furthermore, during this period, NGOs are losing their funding support from foreign contributors who find themselves financially burdened and not able to continue to support them.  The NGO I worked for lost its funding last year leaving the refugees without mental health services or livelihood support. Many of the refugees I provided mental health care to have remained in touch with me over the years and report that UNHCR has told those with refugee status not to come to the UNHCR office and not to call them on the phone. This means their cards are not up-to-date meaning they have no legal status in the country. The Malaysian government announced that they believe Covid-19 comes from foreigners and if they are found on the streets without legal status, they will be deported to the country from which they fled. The system has gone from inadequate to broken. Their material well-being has been supported by UNHCR and a patchwork of NGOs funded by external/foreign sources and without their help how can they eat, or survive? This is a population that nobody wants to know. Some have been evicted from their already meager accommodations taking refuge in the basement of schools residing with rats.

Surely, this is true suffering that we can all relate to. Thich Nhat Hahn offers instructions on seeing suffering, “When you’re sitting on a bus or in a subway, look at the people around you, looking deeply at the expressions on their faces. You will see suffering. When you touch suffering like that compassion is born in you. Looking at living beings through the eyes of compassion is a very strong practice. A week of practice like that can make a big difference in our lives and in the lives of others.”

The difference that this practice can make is perhaps one of action. It is said that action is an organic consequence of our compassion for one another and how we action our compassion depends on how we direct our inner and outer resources. For me, “Bearing Witness” to their suffering has impacted my life profoundly. It began with Awareness of their suffering and Empathy for them in their predicament and then I experienced a rising call from my heart to direct my efforts towards relieving the plight of their suffering living in abject poverty. My curiosity about their lived experience of grief has fostered PROJECT COMPASSION IN ACTION to give voice to their relentless suffering. In the West there is a new movement Vital Voices which promotes our voice as a Superpower. That said, in the spirit of Vital Voices and intending towards a Compassionate Heart I ask for your help in this grassroots movement to create awareness to the suffering of this population.

With Metta, Patricia Snider MA, CCC, RCC. _/\_