PTSD. Helping Refugees: Part 3

I go one afternoon a week to where refugees are housed and provide therapy for a woman I will call M. [1]

When I decided to take the plunge and volunteer, I had no idea what that would look like or what I’d be doing. For the last thirty years I’ve worked as a massage therapist. I’ve treated people across the health spectrum: Pregnant. Disabled. Patients during chemo and radiation therapy. Triathletes to couch potatoes. People seeking relaxation, to a man in need of pain relief years after a helicopter crash. My abilities as a therapist deepen with each person I attempt to help.

I’m licensed in both Europe and America. I kept my US credentials current by doing periodic workshops. I did this for decades, until the weekend seminars felt like I was reinventing the wheel.

I briefly considered doing massage with the aged after we put my mother-in-law in a nursing home near us. But my grief as I accompany Mama in the twilight of her life makes it too personal. When I learned a refugee needed massage, it seemed like the perfect way to stretch myself as a therapist and as a human being.

M. and her family fled from an earlier war zone; they’ve been in my village for over a year. M. is severely traumatized. She existed in a catatonic state for many months. Loud or sudden noises trigger panic attacks and migraines and a voice moaning in her head. Her entire body is a field of pain. Most movement is agony.

Within minutes of beginning our initial massage, M. began sobbing. She cries through every single session. It’s ‘just’ nerves.

No one in her family will tell me her story. I have bits and pieces, cobbled together from talking with her doctor and the volunteer organization. She discovered a dead body.  Was it suicide, or murder? Was it a family member? She was raped more than once. Twice, ten times, one hundred? One man or many? Someone known to her? Looters? Soldiers?

Like I say: I have bits and pieces.

I first met the German liaison when she took me to the refugees. She gave me the barest of details, less than five minutes before I met M. I’d be working right away, without any volunteer training or medical protocols in place. For me the single most important question was: Who had requested the massage therapy?

It was M.

NOTES: [1] To respect the privacy of those involved I have changed names and identifying details, and use initials only. Part 4 to follow.

The Town Volunteer Program. Helping Refugees: Part 2

When dangerous months on foot or voyages in unstable boats are your only options, things are bad indeed. Refugees may be met at borders by hostile police or herded in subhuman conditions. Criminal bands now make more money from human trafficking than drugs. Millions are making the exhausting trek, often cheated and robbed.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has declared Germany will take in refugees, particularly those fleeing Syria. This doesn’t begin to meet the challenge of how to integrate all these newcomers. The scramble is on to figure out how to register, and house, and provide for over one million asylum seekers, all arriving at the same time.

My community will receive 300 refugees. Every empty building is being assessed for use as temporary or permanent housing. I live in a 1,200-year-old village – with fewer than 20,000 inhabitants. Strangers definitely stand out.

I began asking myself questions. What does it mean when an outside crisis brushes up against the everyday? Can I help? If yes, am I prepared for what that entails?

I called the Rathaus (Town Hall). “English is my native language and I’m fluent in German,” I said. “I can translate. We’ve got lots of household goods to donate. I’m a massage therapist: I can offer therapy if someone needs it.”

I was informed that my town has taken in earlier refugees from the former Yugoslavia, Pakistan, and other countries. The town runs a training program for volunteers (how to help the newcomers who suffer from shell shock and/or culture shock, what to expect, etc.). Translating services are in place; the town has more donations for supplies than they can use. But, the offer for medical services… They took my contact information to pass along.

The next morning, I received a phone call from A, the German liaison. [1] “Your offer is like hearing from someone from another planet,” she declared. “For months, a severely traumatized refugee has been requesting massage. How soon can we meet?”

I didn’t know it yet, but there would be no time for the training program.

NOTES: [1] To respect the privacy of all persons involved I have changed the names and use initials only. Part 3 to follow.