Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Broken Promises and Lost Dreams: Navigating Asylum in the United States

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Broken Promises and Lost Dreams: Navigating Asylum in the United States

Article excerpt

Those who work with couples and families are increasingly confronted with the reality of forced human migration in their communities. The number of people displaced due to violence and human rights atrocities is greater now than following the Second World War (UNHCR; United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, 2016a) and shows no sign of slowing. In Syria, nearly 400,000 people have been killed, and six out of every ten (i.e., 60%) have been forced from the country (Connor & Manuel Krogstad, 2016; World Vision, 2016). Disagreement between the government of South Sudan and Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the country's largest armed opposition group, continues to result in casualties and refugees (CFR; Council on Foreign Relations, 2016). Violence perpetrated by Boko Haram has internally displaced nearly two million people in Nigeria (AI; Amnesty International, 2016a). Meanwhile, the number of pending cases at the Asylum Division of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service has more than quadrupled since 2013 (Human Rights First, 2016).

Staggering statistics, however, can only go so far in illustrating the magnitude of the problem. To approach the problem through a more human lens, we ask the reader to consider the following: What would you do if everything familiar changed overnight? Imagine waking up one morning forced to flee to save your life with only the clothes on your back and not knowing if or when you might see your family again. This reality of countless people around the world is so unimaginable to almost all of us that we introduce it the only way we know, our own experiences.


It was 1992 in the former Yugoslavia. Unemployment rose and my parents suddenly found themselves without income. Soon the social infrastructure collapsed. To maintain a sense of routine amidst chaos, my mother often took me to visit her parents. The distance between our homes was short, just over the Sana and Una rivers. Walking there had never been a problem, but as civil unrest intensified and war descended it became a treacherous journey. I remember my father sharing his concern with my mother as she strapped me into a dark blue stroller. That day, however, he decided to walk with us.

The streets were much quieter than usual. I suddenly heard an unfamiliar "thud." It was extremely loud. It came again, "thud." I had no idea what was happening and everything began to move in slow motion. I was scared. My father pushed my mother and the stroller, with me still in it, around the corner of a building. I was pulled from the stroller and the three of us began running as the sniper continued to fire. We were fortunate to reach safety from the gunfire, but the running would continue for over a decade.

Years later, as a U.S. citizen, I was eager to work with refugees in order to better understand my family's experiences. What I was trying to understand, however, seemed unformed and illusive. During my doctoral internship I found myself sitting in therapy sessions with asylum seekers, most of who were engulfed by uncertainty and ambiguity. It was then that I realized my own story of arriving in the United States without anything but uncertainty was critical to understanding an elusive past.


On my desk at the Center for Victims of Torture sits a family photo, taken in 1920, of my great-grandparents surrounded by their children. My grandmother is among them, a fresh-faced 9- year-old girl full of hope and dreams, smiling in her sailor suit. Her parents met for the first time on the boat over from Denmark in 1894, passing through Ellis Island as thousands upon thousands of other new Americans did. I keep it on my desk as a visceral, personal reminder that we are a nation of immigrants, despite our very short-term memories. More than once over the last 20 years I have glanced at the photo while sitting with a lone asylum seeker whose ability to stay in the country-and stay alive-is completely unknown, imagining what it would feel like to have my family vanish into thin air. …

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