Why I Work in War Zones and Refugee Camps
An end-of-the-year reflection on courage and resilience in the darkest places.
Posted Dec 16, 2018
When I speak about my work, and especially when I read from my book War Torn, about life, death, and hope beyond the front lines of armed conflict, one question is asked more than any other: why do I do this work? Why do I spend time in places where violence is pervasive, despair abounds, and hope for better days seems so elusive?
Since a growing number of psychology students and other folks in the mental health field are interested in doing some sort of humanitarian work, I thought I'd answer this question here, in the same way I do when I read from War Torn: by sharing a couple of excerpts from the book that capture why working in war zones leaves me feeling more alive, inspired, and connected to humanity than any other work I have done. The first excerpt, The Orphanage, is about a remarkable small community in the highlands of Guatemala, where I got my start in this work a long time ago. And the second excerpt is about Afghanistan, where the best and worst of humanity are equally on display (you might have to look harder for the former, but it's there, trust me).
If you're curious about these experiences, or this line of work, please feel free to be in touch.
With love and good wishes for the new year, and my hopes that we emerge from the darkness that has closed so many hearts to the needs of those fleeing violence, seeking refuge so far from home. International treaties compel us to hear their stories and respond humanely; basic decency demands no less.
(photo courtesy of Howard Davies, © H.Davies www.eye-camera.com).
Just off the Pan-American Highway, about two hours northwest of Guatemala City, there’s an unpaved road you could easily miss if you weren’t watching for it carefully. It veers off to the right, then winds into the verdant hills and slowly disappears from view. Any bus will drop you off at the desvío, the unmarked entrance to the road. It’s a beautiful, serene walk, with rolling hills on both sides and the smell of the forest fresh in the air. About a mile down, after you’ve passed the bakery that sells whole grain bread and delicious jams, you’ll come to a remarkable place in the middle of nowhere. It’s a sprawling collection of small wooden buildings and open spaces, where little lives are lovingly and firmly pulled back from the edge of disaster.
The kids in the orphanage are there for reasons as varied as the unique sound of each child’s laughter or grief. Some end up there simply because their parents can’t afford to keep them; their poverty is too extreme. It might sound odd, but those are the kids whose eyes still sparkle. They’ve experienced the pain of having been given away by their own families. That sounds harsh and it is, but in its own way it’s also an excruciating act of love. In a country where most rural children are malnourished and have little access to health care, parents know the orphanage will provide food and medicine, schooling, and a chance at a life beyond poverty. The kids are surrounded by warmth, and you can see the healing that’s taken place. They laugh a lot and love to play, and their mischief usually hides no darker trauma, no signs of unhealed rage.
Then there are the kids whose parents abandoned them in Guatemala City, or who just took off from the squalor of some shitty barrio on the outskirts of the capital and found their way, somehow, to the orphanage. They’re lucky to have made it out of la capital alive. It’s a city of great wealth and even greater poverty, where violence and corruption make it an especially perilous place to be a homeless child. Street kids there don’t have a lot of options. Odds are they’ll end up sniffing glue to kill the unrelenting hunger; but what the glue really kills are brain cells, death at an early age. Or they’ll get pulled into gangs that are heavily involved in the drug trade. That path has a way of shortening young lives through overdose or homicide. Then there’s child prostitution, with no shortage of pedophiles willing to lay down money to get off on some kid’s innocence. There are the beatings of cops who get sadistic on small bodies and imagine they can terrify all those urchins into disappearing from the city’s streets. Of course, there’s nowhere for them to go. Even the garbage dumps are full, the mountains of trash crawling with kids and families living off whatever they can find and sell. The handful of street kids who make it to one of the private or church-sponsored orphanages have beaten some pretty tough odds just by getting that far.
Finally, in the orphanage at the end of the unpaved road, there are the orphans of war—kids who witnessed a murder or a massacre and somehow survived. Their eyes don’t tend to sparkle. They’re lost somewhere inside themselves. They might be withdrawn into their pain, or aggressively acting out their rage and trauma. Some are on hyperdrive, intensely alert to any sign of danger. The actual safety of the place doesn’t register; their limbic systems are wired like a zebra staring into the eyes of a crouching lion.
You’d think with histories like these, the orphanage would be awash in pain. But that’s the magic of this remarkable community: mostly you hear a lot of laughter. The place is structured and safe, and the staff brings so much love that only the most traumatized kids stay locked inside their inner sanctums of sadness and fear.
Debbie and I used to visit the staff and kids whenever time allowed. Sister Maria, the nun who ran the place, was the real thing. She lived the calling. She loved the children with a clear-eyed intensity, and you could almost feel her pain when she talked about a child whose trauma lay beyond her reach. Like ten-year-old Walter, who’d watched his mother get stabbed to death by a soldier. He was too far gone to be reached by the warmth of the place. He didn’t play, and his drawings were always replete with the same images of blood-red violence.
Sister Maria asked if I’d spend some time with Walter. I was out at the orphanage every couple of weeks to lead Creative Workshops activities with the staff and kids, so after the group was done, Walter and I would find a quiet place where we’d draw and talk and do some playful movement games. Over time he began to soften. The sky in his pictures changed from black to blue, and then a sun appeared, green trees, a scrawny dog. But the terror persisted in the faces he drew: eyes wide in terror, no mouths at all.
My time at the orphanage was limited, and Walter’s long journey of healing had only just begun. He needed the kind of specialized care you didn’t find in the rural highlands of Guatemala. Still, I took comfort in knowing he was surrounded by a lot of love and the structure and support of the orphanage. In the end, though, there was no way to know how he’d fare in the wake of the terrifying loss that had shattered his world.
In Guatemala, there was no shortage of pathways into darkness. War and poverty, family violence and street violence, there was no end to the ways the world could come down on you before you’d even learned to walk. It really made me appreciate the small spaces of hope, the drops of light that were no match for all that darkness but still mattered anyway. Sister Maria would always thank me for coming by, but really, I don’t think I’d ever gotten that close to grace in action.
THE HELICOPTER flies low, scanning the dark streets and walled-in courtyards for anything suspicious. Automatic weapon fire erupts suddenly, a jarring rat-tat-tat that pulls me away from my writing. I get up anxiously from my desk, open the opaque window, and gaze down at the street, then up at the sky. The helicopter is close, a half-mile away at most, but it’s already circling back towards the military base across the city. The sound of its propellers slowly fades as it recedes into the darkness.
The night air is cool and feels good on my face, but smells of gasoline fumes from a nearby generator. The blend of fumes and dust irritates my throat; after a few minutes, I close the window and sit back down. I stare at my laptop, unable to focus.
I really don’t want to be here.
I arrived in Kabul three weeks ago to evaluate a project aimed at improving conditions in the country’s lone psychiatric hospital. I can’t believe how bad things have gotten in this city, how violent it’s become. The Taliban have infiltrated Kabul to an astonishing degree.
In the past three weeks, suicide bombings in the capital have taken the lives of at least a dozen civilians. The Internet café where Aziz and I used to come each day has been blown out of existence. Last year, a series of execution-style killings in the upscale Serena Hotel and a popular Lebanese restaurant drove most foreigners off the streets and into the safety of heavily guarded compounds. And last week, just down the road from the hospital where I was working, a flash mob of fifty men beats a young woman to death because they believed (falsely) that she’d burned pages of the Koran. The police stood back and watched as she was beaten, stoned, run over with a car, lit on fire and thrown into the Kabul River.
My colleagues in the guesthouse where I’m staying seem nonplussed. They describe the current situation as a comparative lull in the violence, a pause before the onset of the Taliban’s annual spring offensive. A few months earlier, they say, you could feel the ground shake from constant explosions.
This is truly a country at war.
In 2012, Barack Obama declared the Taliban broken. In 2014, they had their deadliest year since the UN started keeping count, with nearly four thousand civilians murdered and another six thousand injured by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), grenades, guns, and suicide bombings. Fourteen years and a trillion dollars after American jets and Northern Alliance forces drove the Taliban from the capital, there’s no end in sight to the violence, the corruption, or the terrible poverty.
I recall with nostalgia how I wandered without fear through the streets of Kabul ten years ago, chatting with shopkeepers, bargaining in the bazaar, and visiting friends. The city I’d once known, where hope still seemed a rational response to the Taliban’s departure, now seems like a distant memory.
YESTERDAY, my old friend Samad Khan came by to visit. One of the guards at the guesthouse opened the heavy metal gate to the street, and there he stood, towering above me with a long beard and an elegant turban. It had been nearly a decade since we’d seen each other, but it didn’t feel that way. We laughed as we embraced, and I felt his powerful arms lift me off the ground. He gently set me back down, his eyes sparkling as we took each other in. With a big smile he said, “You’ve gotten older!”
It was true, of course; we both had, but he didn’t look it and I told him so. “What’s your secret, my friend? You look like you haven’t aged a day since I last saw you.
“I stay busy in the community,” he explained. “There’s so much to do, and it keeps me well.”
We walked upstairs and sat on the balcony of the guesthouse, sipping green tea and nibbling on chocolates I’d brought from Amsterdam. The warmth of the afternoon sun felt good, softened by a cool, dusty breeze. I asked Samad about life in his village, on the outskirts of Kabul.
“A lot of the NGOs have left the country because of the war,” he said, “and that means a lot fewer jobs. Educated people with skills and experience can’t find work. People are anxious and depressed.”
“What about the Taliban?” I asked. Were people afraid of their growing strength and the frequent attacks? He nodded, saying, “The violence has gotten much worse in the past few years. But mostly, people are worried and depressed about the lack of work.”
We shifted to happier topics: his pleasure at being a grandfather several times over, the recent marriage of one of his sons, and updates on the lives of our mutual friends. He invited me to visit him in his home, promising me a delicious dinner of Kabuli Palau—spiced rice and chunks of meat—saying he remembered how fond I was of the dish. “We’ll keep you safe,” he assured me. “No one would dare touch you when you’re with my family.” I promised him I would try to come.
AFGHANISTAN embodies much of what I’ve learned in my years of working in countries affected by war. First, there’s the extraordinary power of culture in shaping reactions to violence and loss. I don’t just mean how people talk about suffering, but how they cope with it, and the ways they find to heal and move on with their lives.
Not everyone moves on, of course; healing doesn’t always happen. There’s the bottomless heartbreak of jigar khun when the losses are too great and there’s no one there to stop the descent into despair. Or the nervousness and rage of persistent asabi, untouched by the passage of time. Mostly, though, people do heal, though the healing is often imperfect, with thin scars just strong enough to hold. The support of family, the power of faith, and the patience and will to endure known as sabr are enough to help most people find their way to solid ground.
Then there’s the reality that suffering in settings of armed conflict isn’t just about the violence of war. There’s a growing recognition of the impact daily stressors have on mental health—the stressful conditions of everyday life when the social fabric has eroded, poverty is widespread, and all forms of violence have become legitimized. The abuse of women and children in Afghanistan, as in other war zones, is no less a source of trauma and despair than suicide bombings and rocket attacks.
And finally, there is this: darkness and light always coexist. The savagery of armed combatants is pervasive here, as it is in other war zones; but so too is the courage of peacemakers and community leaders like Samad Khan, who won’t be silenced by fear. Corrupt politicians who pocket aid money and adorn their heavily guarded mansions are easy to spot. But look around, and you’ll find community organizations working tirelessly to heal the social and emotional wounds of war, build schools, teach women to read and write, and get poor families loans to start their own businesses.
I don’t know what impact these organizations have, what they are actually able to achieve under the difficult circumstances in which they carry out their work. I do know this, however: I find inspiration in their impassioned commitment to counter the myriad effects of war in all their many forms. I feel a renewed strength and a deepened sense of meaning when I think of my friends here and in every war-torn country in which I have spent time. Their work is a kind of love story, and it is, for me, profoundly redemptive.