In today's post, Dr Fidèle Mutwarasibo, Visiting Research Fellow in the OU's Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership, reflects on grieving in refugee communities and shares information on a forthcoming seminar that will focus on this subject. Can you imagine what it feels like not knowing what happened to family members for weeks, months or indeed years? How can one grieve from afar without paying last respects to their deceased family members? How do refugees move on from pain and what can we as a society do to help? These are some of the questions up for debate and discussion at a seminar titled Refugees’ Experiences of Grieving the Dead.
There are two notable events in life, birth and death. Refugees like any other group in society experience these events. Moreover, grieving the dead is particularly tricky in the refugee community especially because most refugees leave their countries in traumatic circumstances. At a recent meeting with Dr Kerry Jones (Lecturer - End of Life Care, Faculty of Wellbeing, Education & Language Studies, School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care, Open University); I was reminded of my personal experience of grief. The meeting re-affirmed my belief that grieving the dead in refugee communities is an essential field regarding research, mental health, integration and social policy.
Beyond the personal experience of grief, there are a couple of stories that come to my mind when I think of refugees grieving the dead. One of them relates to a friend who reminded me what happened when her daughter died in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and how I assisted the family in organising the burial. She contrasted her experience with the others who were not in a position to do the same and had to rely on the international community and aid agencies who organised mass burial of victims of the cholera epidemic in Goma caused by water pollution in the summer of 1994. A couple of days after my friend’s daughter passing, a Western aid worker asked me a poignant question as we drove around the town supporting teams of local workers collecting remains of deceased refugees to take to mass graves, the aid worker asked me if I had any idea on how the refugee families were grieving their dead. Over two decades on, I still ask myself the same question. How many of those who lost their family members in Goma feel guilty for not having organised a customary funeral? How many have had post-traumatic disorders as a result of their experiences? Did family members receive any counselling or partake in peer support initiatives? Bearing in mind that over 200,000 people died as a result of the cholera epidemic at the time, the number of those affected is big, and there is no doubt that many are still leaving that experience.
“Bereavement research has been conducted largely on peaceful Western populations, but, has barely addressed grieving the death of significant others that are often part of refugees' experience. Meanwhile, research and action with refugees have focused more on trauma and loss of home, community, status, job, etc. than on grief for deceased friends and family. This seminar seeks to begin to address this gap. Refugees' experience of bereavement is immensely varied - from witnessing family members getting killed before leaving one's home country or dying en route, to the many Jews who got out of Vienna in 1938 but didn't know for up to a decade which other family members had survived”.
Dr Kerry Jones will be contributing a paper titled 'Kindertransport refugees: Discovering our parents’ fate'. Other contributors at the conference include Dr Shahaduz Zaman, Senior Lecturer, University of Sussex, who will show a Film and give a short paper titled Where Shall Thou Rest: Death and Dying at the Syrian Refugee Camps in Lebanon. Additionally, Dr Maurice Stierl, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Warwick will present a paper titled Grieving Migrant Lives Lost in the Mediterranean Sea.
Date: Thursday, 7 February 2019
Time: 13:00 – 17:00 GMT
Venue: University of Bath, 83 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5ES