Photo credit: Masoumeh Tajik
I celebrated my 39th birthday in Greece.
I’m not saying this to boast or brag. In fact, it is a statement of complete gratitude.
My birthday felt like an honor in what had been a very hard year. I made it through 2022, despite a lot of challenges. Anticipatory grief of loved ones whose health had declined and were in the process of transition, mourning the loss of relationships, being the parent of a small child whose whole world has been social distancing and unrest, listening to stories of concern and holding space for people’s difficulty in my daily clinical work. All of this while living in a pandemic, even as we return to a new “normal.”
Then, there was the socio political climate, especially in my field, in the immigrant rights and racial justice world. The racist and xenophobic implications of Title 42 and the ongoing back-and-forth discussions about its termination. I have seen and experienced the impacts of enforcement and discrimination on families through brutality, incarceration and deportations; the humanitarian crises in countries like Cameroon and daily deportation flights to Haiti, not to mention the discrepancy in treatment of people displaced from Ukraine and the asylum-seeking people at our borders, and the ongoing worry about family, friends, and community in immigration limbo.
As an organizer and facilitator, am I allowed to be honest in that I worried about my mental health this year? And as the year was winding down, I will admit to feeling lost, alone, and tired.
When the Atlantic Fellows for Health Equity team announced a health equity convening focused on “exploring the effects of forced displacement on the psychological and physiological health…and approaches that promote good health and healing within displacement communities,” it was like they were speaking directly to me. The convening would take place in late September, right around my birthday.
Going to Greece was my first time being in Europe, and only my second time leaving the country for international travel. I took everything in. I was intent on learning a minimum of five Greek phrases(mission accomplished!). I was going to find a gyro. I took so many pictures of the rocky ruins and remnants of the city from centuries before. I welcomed listening and learning from Amna and other Fellows about their experiences, wanting to enhance and apply a global lens to my perspective about displacement.
Then came the panel of four people who personally experienced displacement and were navigating their adjustment to living in Greece. I felt all of it, but especially the two panelists who identified as Black from the African diaspora who spoke about their experiences and the discrepancies in their treatment and reception in Greece. I did my best to hold back tears; this was their time to take up as much space as they needed to express and share. And as they ended sharing their personal stories and opened the space for reflections and questions, the room was pregnant with silence. We were empathetic and awe-struck. Some of us may have felt survivor’s guilt. We were having a hard time breaking the silence of vulnerability that filled the air.
Me? I was activated. I felt my body tense, a tightness in my throat, the panelists’ words creating images in my head, reminding me of my own experiences, my body flooding with emotions, which at that time seemed overwhelmingly anger and heartbreak for them, while recognizing I felt the same for myself. I remember what it was like to share my own story and I wondered how they were feeling, praying that they would have a supportive and affirming debrief afterwards. I left the room and then came the tears. The whole year of grief and worry was in those tears.
I have lived half of my life as an undocumented immigrant. I had to navigate the impacts of that experience every day, and now am supporting people who are displaced. I was honestly full of feelings. While our journeys and experiences may have differed in specifics, I saw apiece of myself in the panelists. The empathy levels were high. And that is part of the experience in being an organizer and facilitator who also has lived experience with displacement.
I remember being very quiet after this segment. I was doing my own internal debrief. Then some of us gathered and organically had a group debrief. We were standing in community with each other.
As people who straddle these roles - being the supporters who have lived or vicarious experience of displacement - community with others who share this same experience is vital.
While in Greece, here are the things we did that filled me up:
● Shared our reflections about our experiences and what it meant to be in Greece.
● Walked on the promenade along the Aegean Sea, taking in the water and our loud child-like surprise that, in the distance, was Mount Olympus, a place I had only read about.
● Enjoyed a gratitude walk along the streets of Thessaloniki, celebrating 38 years of my life and welcoming blessings in the 39th year.
● Played volleyball and ping pong at the Open Cultural Center and cheered each other on.
● Danced in a small conference room, grooving to music and our internal rhythms.
● Decided against a fancy dinner and ran (emphasis on this action) to grab gyros instead.
● Laughed raucously at inside jokes at a full restaurant.
● Realized when there were two degrees of separation between us and others we know in our lives.
● Sat on a rooftop and supported each other in challenging ourselves in our commitment to action as a collective.
● Expressed how much we value each other’s presence and affirming space.
● Celebrated my 39th year on this Earth by taking time to sing Happy Birthday and present me with a sticky sweet shareable Greek dessert with a question mark candle.
Months later, when I think about Greece, this is the takeaway I make sure to revisit, breathe in, and meditate on.
In my work, I focus my energy on the support of the people doing the work in the pursuit of justice and equity, particularly by examining our systems and encouraging culture shifts and developing structures to create and reinforce wellness of ourselves as we care for others. The fact is - many of us in the room at the convening were people who had their own experiences with displacement, and we have found ourselves and our purpose in this work. Some of us are in a very different place and time from our experiences of displacement. We don’t often get to admit how we hurt and worry, because others are experiencing suffering and difficulty in the present and here-and-now. That doesn’t take away from our experiences - the fact is, our experiences live with us. They are imprinted on our brains. In doing this work, we experience triggers and reminders. And if we don’t engage and receive care, those same triggers can activate and impact our mental and emotional space.
Community care - being in community with others, sharing space, centering our joy and giving us a place to rest, process, receive affirmations and guidance - this is just as vital to our health equity work as the actions we take to push for equity amongst our communities.
Can you take some time to consider how and whether community care is available and accessible to you as a health equity warrior? If you, like I, may be struggling with this, don’t wait to travel around the world to find an opportunity for that to change. Take the time to reflect now - you and your community will be better off for it.