Bearing Witness to Refugees’ Experience

Whitehead camp 2008 - Bearing Witness to Refugees' Experience
A former refugee camp in Hong Kong.

One of the things that we existential psychologists take seriously is the existence of evil in the world. It is so painful for me when I become aware of how much evil and pain is perpetrated in the world for various reasons. The pain is such that I prefer not to think about most of the time. When I do take time to think about it, I am baffled, angry and exasperated with how much trauma and suffering is inflicted by a few upon so many, while it takes legions of heroic individuals to help just a few of these victims. It makes little sense to me. The philosophic and theological answers regarding free will provide me with limited comfort. What make some sense to me are the words of Viktor Frankl who taught us in his book Man’s Search for Meaning:

As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. It does not really matter what we expect from life, but rather what life expects from us. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life, he can only respond by being responsible.

A big part of what promotes my denial and avoidance is the sense of helplessness that I feel whenever I ponder the scope of the suffering that takes place. I hate this feeling of helplessness. Yet, it is the same helplessness that lawyers at the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Center (HKRAC, face on a regular basis. The unsung heroes and heroines at the HKRAC persist every day despite struggling with their own sense of helplessness. Often, they will take on refugee cases applying for asylum even though at the outset, they know that the case has virtually no chance of success. This also makes little sense economically. They invest significant amounts of time in these cases even though they know they will fail. Why? Why not? This is because they know that what they do is significant just because. They know that the meaning of what they do is not directly tied to the success of their applications. If they were solely dependent upon successful applications, then they’d all quit with despair. Even with successful applications, the journey is in many ways has just begun. In the words of one attorney, “you can’t control the outcome but you can give your client a good day.”

In addition to protecting the refugee’s legal rights and providing high quality legal advice, the staff members help to preserve their clients’ dignity. The briefs that they write are significant beyond the fact that they document the traumatic events that took place. Think of the vicarious trauma that the staff endures from hearing details of systemic torture and abuse that happen over and over again. The briefs are significant because they are a written record of the narrative of the suffering that has been endured. They are significant because otherwise, the suffering will be unheard, undocumented, and therefore invisible. They battle against the pain of insignificance. The applications may ultimately be unsuccessful, but their clients are nevertheless tremendously grateful that despite the evil that has been perpetrated upon them, there are others in the world who care enough to listen and bear witness to their suffering.

The attorneys not only document, but they create worth. Carl Rogers taught us that empathy dissolves alienation. Carl Jung said that schizophrenics cease to be schizophrenic when they meet other persons with whom they feel understood. Through the staffs’ patient listening and the attorneys’ attentive sifting through the stories of trauma, the briefs written are Books of Life. When successfully recognized, they provide a new chance at life. Regardless of the application result, the briefs helps to recreate meaningful existence for people whose lives have been ravaged by evil. And the amazing thing is, these highly qualified staff commit to this beautiful work for pitiful wages while living in Hong Kong, one of the most expensive cities in the world. This blog is my tribute to them and my efforts to bear witness and honor the beautiful work that they do.

Despite the pitifully low wages, there are deeply meaningful rewards. The staff shared one such reward with me recently when they recalled the jubilation of one of their few successful applicants. The applicant came into the office and exclaimed, “Stand Up, Now We Hug!” I imagine this being said with a heavy African accent. After years of struggle, what else can we say but “Stand Up, Now We Hug!”

— Mark Yang

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