Syrian refugees arriving in Montreal face a myriad of challenges in adapting to their new homes. Though their plight and resultant trauma is not comparable, what is to be learned from the experiences faced by Holocaust survivors who came here in the late 1940s?
We put the question to Myra Giberovitch, adjunct teaching professor at McGill University’s School of Social Work and field placement supervisor, who in 1989 launched the first outreach program for Montreal survivors.
She is the daughter of survivors. Her father was among the few who did not perish in the infamous death march in January 1945 from the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp, when the Germans, fleeing the Red Army, forced mobile inmates to join them. Her mother was liberated in a German labour camp in Czechoslovakia. Childhood friends, they reconnected and married in a displaced persons camp in Schwandorf, Germany, where Giberovitch was born.
In her research and work with Holocaust survivors, Giberovitch learned that the Jewish and wider community did not provide social and psychological support to people who had suffered horrific experiences when they began arriving in Montreal in the late 1940s.
“They were told to move on with their lives, to forget about what happened to them. There were suspicions about them— what did you do in order to survive? How come you survived when so many others didn’t?
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“They were so offended by that, but they were resourceful and resilient and turned to one another and formed this phenomenal self-help movement, the landsmanshaft’n – mutual aid societies of immigrants from the same European town or region. Some joined existing groups such as the Workmen’s Circle.”
Syrian refugees, many of whom are survivors of physical violence, separation, and displacement, are in a position to benefit from what has been learned in the last few decades about post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The issue of the impact of traumatic experiences only came to public awareness in 1980, with the Vietnam War veterans, when the condition was first recognized as a standard medical disorder,” Giberovitch notes.
Not all Syrian refugees, however, will be adversely affected by their experience, or to the same degree, she cautions. “Everybody is different. Some are resilient. They have strengths. They cope. A person’s age, cumulative life
experience, personality, coping skills, and social support are among the factors that can contribute to or mitigate people from developing post-traumatic symptoms.”
Many of the Syrians can be expected to experience culture shock. This is especially true among those who have been violently uprooted and did not plan to come here and could not prepare for the transition. “Integration can take many years. But we also know that the majority of people do adjust, if they have the proper support.”
People who are uprooted and displaced by war, such as the Syrians, normally are highly motivated to put down new roots.
‘They will all say, ‘I want to build a better life for my children’, and that’s an incredible motivator for them.”
This has been the experience for all other post World War II groups of refugees, she said, recalling the
Hungarian refugees of 1956, Vietnamese Boat People, and East Asian Ugandan refugees. “People do recover
and they move on: it’s the resiliency of the human spirit.”
A key in assisting their successful integration is to ask refugees what they need, rather than imposing services. “The Syrians who are coming here were in refugee camps, which require coping skills to survive. Some of them were there for two or three years.”
Immediate needs, such as housing, employment, learning the language, schools for children, accessing health care and other essential services will occupy most of a refugee’s energies in the first years.
The impact of traumatic experiences can emerge years later, at which point some of the refugees may need psychological and/or pharmacological help, if they accept it.
“A lot of people coming from different cultures are not used to people outside the family helping them, so you can’t assume that because you set up services, people who need them will use them.” Refugees may well want to turn to services that already exist in the community that reflect their ethno-cultural background.
In spite of a well-organized Jewish community, it was not until 1998 that specific and focused services for Holocaust survivors were established. Many survivors wanted a single central office that could help clarify issues connected with restitution, pensions, and concerns linked to their autonomy and general coping. Some complained of loneliness: many of their friends had died and often children had left Montreal.
“Isolation and lack of distraction leads to a focus on traumatic memories,” Giberovitch said. “They said they wanted to come to a place and be with people where they felt understood and could talk about their experiences, if they want to.”
As a result of her research and meetings with survivors, Giberovitch founded Services for Holocaust
Survivors at the Cummings Centre in Montreal and its Drop-In Centre.
“They feel embraced by community, and that’s crucial to recovery, a place where they can come to, feel safe, and be in control.”
As she notes in her book, Recovering form Genocidal Trauma: An Information and Practice Guide for Working with Holocaust Survivors (University of Toronto Press, 343 pages), for some survivors the pain lingers and recovery is partial.
“Some feel they have recovered by keeping the memory of their families alive, and remembering to ‘live each day a little bit and heal’.”