A presentation to the International Club of Annapolis
I am honored to speak with you about refugees.
Most of us think of refugees as other people. strangers. newcomers. aliens. others.
People who swim actress the river from Mexico to Texas. wetbacks.
I think of refugees differently. When I was very young, my grandmother taught me that
I am a refugee.
My family has been in the United States for more than 100 years. So how can I be a refugee? I had relatives that fought on both sides of the Civil War.
So how can I be a refugee?
I am part Choctaw. My grandmother was born on the Choctaw reservation in Oklahoma.
When I was a child my grandmother told me horror stories about how my family was kicked off our ancestral home in Mississippi.
We were forced by US President Andrew Jackson onto the TRAIL OF TEARS. Forced to march on foot from Mississippi, through Arkansas, to Oklahoma. On foot.
It was particularly unfair because the Choctaws were instrumental in Jackson’s political career. He had been able to win the battle of New Orleans because the Choctaws under Pushmatheta joined and fought for Jackson’s side. Later, my ancestor, Chief Greenwood Leflore, was forced by Jackson to sign the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek that put our people on the Trail of Tears.
I recount this story because my grandmother had such a vivid memory of the Trail of Tears. A memory of trauma on the Trail of Tears. After she told me these stories, I had nightmares about the Trail of Tears. I was young, but I remembered.
It was only years later that I learned that my grandmother was born decades after the Trail of Tears. She had inherited the agony of being a refugee.
I tell you this story because it is about how trauma is transmitted across generations.
One of my colleagues on the board of the International Dialogue Initiative, Vamik Volkan is a famous psychiatrist who has written books on the “Transgenerational Transmission of Trauma.”
I have witnessed the transmission of trauma in the volunteer work I did for 20 years in prisons in Maryland (until COVID caused me to be locked out of prison.) Many of the inmates who opened up about their past had been traumatized as youngsters. They were trauma victims before they became traumatizers of their victims.
Why am I telling all this? Because the transmission of trauma across generations is the biggest stumbling block to resolving conflicts between ethnic groups, tribes, political factions, governments, people in Israel, Gaza. People in Ukraine.
The memory of trauma is the cause of the major psychological barriers to peace in the world.
My masters degree at Harvard was all about the transmission of trauma during the Crusades.
You can go into the Middle East now and ask almost anyone — Muslim, Jew, Christian — about the Crusades and you will quickly realize they are not talking about history. They view the Crusades as current events.
I tell you all this because I am a board member of the International Dialogue Initiative that was formed by Dr. Volkan and a dozen psychologists and psychiatrists plus some folks like me who have a masters degree in Organizational Psychology or Social Psychology.
The IDI is working to identify the psychological barriers to peacemaking and encourage dialogue between those who are having trouble working together.
The IDI published a book “We don’t Speak of Fear: Large Group identity, Societal Conflict and Collective Trauma.” We have board members from all over the world, including Israel, Palestine, Iran, Turkey, Britain, Germany. Russia.
One of our members is the attorney for the Palestinian Authority. Another member is a former official of the Israeli Security and Intelligence Community. They get along but do not always agree. Several of our folks have family members in Israel who were killed this year. Casualties on both sides.
I do not want to leave you thinking of extremes but Casualties and Hostages are a reality.
The situation in Gaza is particularly dreadful. Innocent citizens have been killed and the shortage of medicines, food, and water persist. The bombing has been dreadful.
I have been on conference calls at 3 AM our time, which is business time in Israel. We;ve been trying to get life-saving medicines and food into Gaza. Some of our members are trying to get a larger voice for the United Nations. It has not been easy. Success is in shortage.
The International Dialogue Initiative is continuing to work for peace but there’s a lot of work still needed. We have had an easier time figuring out what the psychological impediments to peace are than in actually getting officials into dialogue. We will continue our efforts.
One of the most promising approaches is a book by Rabbi Michael Lerner. Lerner’s book is Healing Israel/Palestine: A Path to Peace and Reconciliation. It’s a tremendous book.
Rabbi Lerner writes that we have a choice. “A first step is for both sides to stop the ‘blame game,” that claims one side is right and the other is wrong. Both sides have been cruel and hurtful toward the other.
He calls for a new spirit of generosity, open-hearted reconciliation, and a genuine commitment to nonviolence.
I think we should all pray for this.