It’s a big ugly world out there and our ability to navigate it successfully can be determined to a large extent by our childhood experiences.
For the lucky ones, those formative experiences were generally happy and will have enabled youngsters to thrive into well-functioning adults. Unfortunately, less fortunate people are haunted by their childhood memories, traumatised by them throughout adulthood. I am Bosnian – and I know too many of the latter.
Having just finished translating (from Bosnian into English) a book written to help child refugees of war in my country deal with their trauma, I was struck by an article I read this week about a mystery illness that has affected the children of asylum seekers in Sweden. I was interested to learn that over the last two years there have been reports of hundreds of cases of perfectly healthy children suddenly withdrawing completely, ceasing to walk or talk, or even open their eyes. They’re not always new arrivals, either. In many cases those affected have lived in Sweden for years, have learned the language and have apparently adjusted well to their new, Nordic-lives. Then, months and sometimes years later, something within these children stirs and resurfaces.
Experts say this Resignation Syndrome is a way for these children to protect themselves from what they’ve experienced. Others suggest it is because they fear being returned to their home countries where they experienced the original trauma.
And yet it seems these migrant children have become political pawns in Sweden, much as immigrants are in many other countries around the world.
Whether you’re here in Scotland or in Sweden, the derogatory accusations hurled at asylum seekers and refugees are very similar. They are often said to be trying it on, lying about their age or country of origin; they’re stretching our schools and public services to breaking point; they’re pushing crime rates up. This to me is fake news deserving of that name, and the intention of these headlines appears to be to cast suspicion on these children and their families, only adding further to the agony they are trying to escape.
The question so rarely asked, however, is why 50 million children across the world are still forced to flee their homes in this, the 21st century.
According to the Refugee Council, world events often correlate directly with asylum applications; last year people were most likely to seek refuge here from the Middle East, desperate to escape on-going conflict and the murderous advance of ISIS.
And, while the pictures we may see on TV perhaps make us think that most refugees are coming to Europe, it simply isn’t true. The UN’s Refugee Agency estimates that nearly 90% of the world’s refugees are sheltered by developing countries, often just over the border from the war zones they are fleeing.
But go back and think about your own childhood experiences. While they certainly play a part in building our resilience in adult life, they can’t protect us from losing everything in the future.
Always remember that many asylum seekers and refugees who come to our shores once thought of themselves as the lucky ones. My parents, who are very much in the ‘happy childhood’ category, certainly never thought they’d be forced to leave our home, their successful careers, family and friends, to leave that all behind at a moment’s notice.
When we left Bosnia in the 1990s, first my mother and my sisters and me escaped on a bus, and only much later was my father able to leave the country and find us. Most of all, they never imagined in the years before that time that their three children would experience the trauma of war at home and then the stigma of being refugees abroad.
Given my experience of fleeing a war-torn country, where would you imagine I’d rate my childhood on the ever-so crude scale between bliss and misery? Well, despite everything, I undoubtedly class myself as one of the lucky ones.
I also know not to take any of it for granted. And I don’t.
Sabina Kadic-Mackenzie is an associate partner at Charlotte Street Partners.