Retelling Trauma in NGOs

Retraumatization Series: Blog 2
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Migrants through Mexico often rely on the help of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to keep them safe on their journeys through Mexico. In this blog, I show how the treatment they receive from NGOs can reinforce the feeling of stigma as well as the experience of trauma.

Nongovernmental organizations tend to be the backbone and prime source of assistance for migrants while they travel throughout Mexico. Their primary function is to serve as a safe space for migrants. Shelters are an essential part of the migrants’ journey because they help with making migrants aware of their rights, providing shelter, offering food, and finding jobs. In addition, they also assist with looking for local housing and finding community with people who are also learning to navigate their new lives. The presence of psychologists and social workers in shelters are necessary for the shelters to support migrants appropriately; these people are the ones that identify and take in newly arrived migrants. Upon admittance to a shelter, migrants are often asked to briefly share their story with a social worker or psychologist to determine the type of assistance that each individual needs. For many migrants, sharing their stories puts them in a vulnerable position because it is triggering to share their stories with strangers. As a result, many migrants have had mixed experiences with NGOs.

For example, “M” from El Salvador was a 42-year-old woman who had gone through a lot and was constantly reminded of the responsibilities of motherhood and the terrorization she endured from gangs in El Salvador. When she was asked about her children and how they were taken out of their home suddenly one day, she stated that the most difficult part has been letting her son flee to France so that he could be safe. She shared that the rest of her children and her have slowly started to forget him. This is experience is one of many topics that she did not want to share. She explained that with her son:

Poco a poco lo hemos ido superando. A nadie le he contado, ni a la psicóloga. No le tengo confianza en nadie aquí… Yo a nadie le he contado aquí… Nunca he tenido confianza… Allá hay muchas cosas, la gente viene huyendo y pues a veces uno no les pregunta ni nada. Dicen que hoy está peor, otros que mejor.

Little by little, we have overcome it. I haven’t told anyone here, even the psychologist. I don’t trust any one here. … I have not told anyone here… I never trust them … Over there, there are many things, the people are fleeing, and sometimes we are not asked anything. They say that it is worse now, and others say it is better.

“M’s” vulnerability is visible in her statement that she did not trust the shelters enough to the difficulties she has faced in the past. M had nowhere to process and did not want to relive her trauma with someone she did not trust.

Similarly, “X,” a 26-year-old man from Honduras, shared that his main reason for fleeing Honduras was to protect his family from the frightening repercussions of being tied to the MS – 13 gang. Upon arrival to Tijuana, he tried his best to hide from the gang, but he stated that it created a lot of fear and brought back a lot of bad memories. He, too, was wary of telling his story to a psychologist at a shelter but found it relieving to let go of his story. He explained:

Una psicóloga no la conoces como a ti no te conozco, pero son cosas que a uno lo hacen hacer más fuertes contarlas porque lo superas. Sales de – estás ahogado en un vaso de agua y cuando sales de arriba sentís vos que te liberaste de ese peso de consciencia cuando platicas cosas así.

You don’t know a psychologist, like I don’t know you, but they are things that make you stronger to tell them, because you get over it. You get out of – you’re drowning in a glass of water and when you come up you feel like you freed yourself of this weight of your conscience when you talk about things like that.

Even thought being able to talk to a psychologist helped alleviates the burden of all the violence that X had experienced, he emphasized that it was hard to share with a stranger. Being vulnerable about a delicate subject required trust. Due to his transitory experience, it could be difficult to create such trust in environments like shelters or NGOs.

“A” a 19-year-old woman from Guerrero, Mexico was actively fleeing her home after being kidnapped and raped by one of the cartels that terrorized her neighborhood. She shared that upon arriving to Tijuana with her aunt, they found momentary refuge at a shelter. She did not remember the name but was aware that the shelter was not looking after their safety. At some point, she remembered, the people in charge of running the shelter exhibited hostile behavior towards them, such as stealing their belongings. In addition, they would be told that if they did not like the treatment, then they were free to leave. “A” stated that when people would come to the shelter to interview them, the lady in charge would be upset. One time when “A” started crying, the lady got mad. The treatment that “A” remembered the most was the following:

Sí y luego aparte de que allá nos robaron todo, se robaron todo, lo único que trajo me robaron mi dinero… Aquí en el [nuevo] albergue lo único dinero que yo traigo me robaron así que me quedé con nada. Y lo bueno es de ya después un muchacho nos dio, nos encontró pues ahí en el chaparral y nos dio dinero.

Yes and besides the fact that they stole everything from us over there, they stole everything I had brought, they stole my money… Here in the [new] shelter they stole all the money I had here at the shelter and I was left with nothing. The good thing was that later a young man gave us money, he found us near the border crossing and gave us money.

“A’s” trauma from the abuse of the cartel was one of the main reasons for which she and her aunt were fleeing their home state. However, they were both re traumatized by the lack of support and emotional abuse they went through at the first shelter they arrived to. Instead of supporting “A” and her aunt, the shelter contributed to their trauma. A shelter is supposed to provide a sense of security and moral support, however, “A’s” experience highlights the possibility that shelters can be abusive. The individuals described the experience of having most of their personal belongings stolen while living at the shelter. Living through such an experience adds to the trauma that migrants experience even when in a supposedly “safe” space.

During the time that I spent in the Casa del Migrante I primarily talked to deported and asylum-seeking men. Not many of them shared traumatic experiences in the shelters they had stayed at throughout their journey. However, one of the observations that I made while interviewing was of the ways in which I, a researcher, could also be contributing to the retraumatization of the migrants. Throughout the three months that we got to interview migrants, two of the interviews that I did were intense for the migrant to share. For the first interview, I had to stop briefly within the first five minutes of the interview because the interviewee stated that he felt too overwhelmed re-telling the abuse he had faced from his government. The second instance, was when the interviewee and I had to stop during the second half of the interview because he got emotional sharing about his addiction to alcohol and how it affected his relationship with his family. I recognize that during these two instances, I was in a position of privilege because I do not have any formal training as a psychologist or therapist to help them process their emotions and experiences, and I was being invasive of the migrants’ experiences. They both were sharing delicate anecdotes that made them remember painful moments in their lives. In conclusion, even though our program was conducting interviews to understand migrants’ experiences, our research might also represent a form of retraumatization.