Syrians arrival in Greece

andrea pic1

The radio crackled loudly in the room, jarring us from our sleep. It was not yet 6 am. I sat up in my sleeping bag, trying to discern something intelligible from the static. It was my third day volunteering on the Greek island of Lesvos. One of my roommates translated the cackling for me. “They’ve seen a boat filled with about 70 people crossing from Turkey, but haven’t said where they will be brought ashore. We don’t need to get up yet,” she added. I lay back down, trying to reclaim the warmth of the sleeping bag. Lesvos was surprisingly cold in mid-March.

background ocean

An almost transcendent beauty staged the perilous journey made by thousands of asylum-seekers who risked their lives crossing by boat from Turkey to Greece, a journey of less than ten miles, as the crow flies. Pristine waters, in varying shades of bright blue and turquoise, surrounded the Greek island where I was volunteering with a grassroots Greek organization. The hillsides were green and covered with wildflowers. Bright orange lifejackets and clothes that had outlived their usefulness could be found in many an unassuming corner of the island: in olive groves, on hillsides, along shorelines and roads.


They served as reminders of the thousands of people who risked their lives to make the dangerous and expensive voyage to Greece. I always wondered how many of the lifejackets I saw lying around were “real”. The smugglers were infamous for giving people – many of whom could not swim – fake lifejackets.


The number of boats with refugees crossing from Turkey to the northern part of Lesvos had diminished greatly in recent weeks. We could see large NATO ships patrolling the waters from our lookout point. These ships used radar to identify where boats were trying to cross, and then Frontex – a European Union boarder patrol unit – sometimes in coordination with the Greek and Turkish coast guards, would divert the boats. Due to the heightened number of patrol boats in front of our stretch of the sea, asylum-seekers and migrants started taking different routes to avoid interception

Radio static filled the room again. Wherever this boat was coming from, it was miraculous they made it past the extensive surveillance and interception system in place. I couldn’t go back to sleep. I got up, splashed water on my face, and pulled on several layers of clothes to try and keep the cold at bay.

favoriteWalking towards the sea, I ran into the volunteer on duty. She was a psychologist who worked with refugees in France. The grassroots solidarity movement in support of asylum-seekers and migrants in Greece was hearteningly international in nature. “The boat is coming here, and no one is answering their phones at the apartment,” she said. They hadn’t announced the final destination on the radio. I returned to the one bedroom apartment that housed six of us, announced the arrival of the boat, and then made my way to the small port. I could see two lifeguard boats accompanying the boat ashore. As they entered the port, lifeguards shouted instructions in Arabic to the man steering the boat who was clearly new to his role. A loud cheer erupted from the boat when it became clear to everyone onboard they had actually made it.


As people clambered out of the boat and onto the pebbly beach, volunteers from several different organizations greeted them. A medical team checked the new arrivals for health problems. One little girl hung limply in her father’s arms, barely responsive. She’d contracted meningitis about a year ago.

I ended up helping a pregnaturkeynt woman traveling with six young children, three of whom were the children of relatives who already crossed into Europe. Her youngest was a little boy with a cast on one arm. The cast was curved at a funny angle, and looked suspiciously like it wasn’t doing its job. He was crying. There were two little girls – twins. Three years old. One of them was inconsolable. She’d been crying since they landed. Now she screamed even louder in the arms of another volunteer who picked her up. I extended my arms to her twin sister who watched the proceedings with serious green eyes. “Come here my dear,” I said in Arabic. She didn’t protest being picked up. Her clothes were soaked with seawater from the voyage. Her little hands and feet were cold. It was time to get her into dry clothes. Together, we walked half a kilometer to the changing tents. All the while, my little charge stared up at me with solemn eyes. This little girl and her family were Yazidis from Sinbar in Iraq. The plight of the Yazidis first grabbed news headlines in August of 2014 when the so-called Islamic State began a genocidal rampage against them. I could only imagine what their family had been through. Chaos ensued for the next hour at the changing tents, as approximately 70 people tried to find clothes and shoes that fit them and their children. Eventually everyone was in dry clothes. It was when the boxes of fruit juice were passed around and drunk, that my little charge came to life and started exploring her surroundings. The young men were outside taking selfies sporting sunglasses and freshly slicked back hair, tweeting their arrival and updating their Facebook status. Kids were playing outside underneath the olive trees surrounding the tents. People were adjusting. It would still be several hours until UNHCR would arrive and take the new arrivals to Stage Two, where they would be processed. If eligible for asylum, it was likely they would live in limbo for many years. Undoubtedly it would be frustrating, but at least they were safe. They were the lucky ones: they’d arrived before the March 20th deadline, when the EU – Turkey deal came into effect.


Those arriving on or after March 20th, regardless of their individual situation, would not be given the option to apply for asylum in Greece, but automatically returned to Turkey. Forcibly repatriating asylum-seekers is in direct violation of International Human Rights Law, which established the right of people to seek asylum from persecution in other countries. As a result of the increased difficulty to reach Greece, asylum-seekers and migrants have turned to more dangerous routes, resulting in the death of hundreds recently, as boats have capsized and sunk off of the coast of Libya.

One other boat arrived during my time on Lesvos. The boat was filled predominantly with Afghans, one Syrian, and one Iranian. They arrived after the March 20th deadline. I will always wonder what happened to them.

Have you ever sat back and reflected upon your life? The fact that you were born into a certain family, religion, country, at a specific point in human history? I come from a country that is not torn apart by war, or controlled by an authoritarian regime that makes it difficult to thrive. We have our own challenges, certainly, but civil war is not one of them at the moment. So what is the appropriate response to others who are not as fortunate as we are? John Rawls was an American moral and political philosopher spent a lot of time thinking about what is just from a moral standpoint. He developed an idea he called “the veil of ignorance”, which he said was necessary to ensure our thinking was just – to navigate our own inherent biases and preferences. Consider the following scenario: what if at the flip of an existential coin, you had a 50-50 chance of waking up tomorrow morning with your family in either Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, or the Gaza Strip? What rights and opportunities would you want given to you and your loved ones, if you had a very real possibility of finding your lives in mortal danger? The truth is that we’d all want the right to leave and seek asylum in a safer country; that we’d want the opportunity to try and build some semblance of a good and stable life for our families elsewhere. If we were honest with ourselves, we’d also admit that if the opportunity were not freely available to us and we had no other option, we’d seek it out.

Origins of Trans-generational Trauma

The discoveries  about the brain by neuroscientists  have become more and more available to the general public. So, non-science types, perhaps you,  are learning about trauma and brain changes, including the most recent discoveries  that show us that future generations can be impacted  by the traumatic events of past generations as DNA is changed negatively by the cascade of stress hormones. It was thought that trans-generational trauma occurred by the traumatized parents inability to be present to the child but now we know that responses to stress is not only behaviorally based, it is genetic.  One of the conditions that can occur is Stress Vulnerability.

As the public’s awareness grows, we learn it is possible to affect changes in our lives that will shift the trauma impacted DNA and it starts with The Story that Wants to be Told and moves from there to diet, exercise and good versus not so good habits (like addictions; drugs, alcohol, smoking, high risk behaviors).

The information disseminated by neuroscientists is exciting and inevitably will lead to change in policies throughout our systems from teaching, to funding programs, military and how we look at many social problems — including addictions which we have learned are most often trauma based.  And we will stop blaming those who are suffering, underachieving and have experienced  “punishment and blame”  which only adds new layers of trauma to the already injured brain.

Once we understand when the brain is impacted by  traumatizing events or chronic conditions puts the person into survival, unless successfully treated, she/he will remain in survival. One of the symptoms of being in survival in a lack of presence on the part of the injured one who living in fear/survival is scanning the immediate environment saying with this behavior — am I safe?  Am I safe?  Our schools and communities are loaded with people/women and their children living neurologically in survival.  This impacts the learning capacity and is such that symptoms can remain with individuals through adulthood unless the trauma is re-mediated. We begin with —  The Story that Wants to Be Told.

For more read:

Look for neuroscience and trauma material on our Resource page.

War Can Knock On Any Door

You wake up every day, take kids to school and do whatever you usually do without its ever crossing your mind that one day everything can change. But then just one single day changes your life; Somewhere in your country, a war has begun.

UkraineRuinMy story is not a story about what happens when war comes to your house. It is about what happens when war stands just outside.

You start checking the news every hour, scared to see if maybe the situation has deteriorated. And the news shows something you never expected to see in your home news: Continue reading

Stress response: men and women differ

The discovery of how women’s responses to stress are different than men came about in a casual conversation between two University (UCLA) women scientists, Laura Cousino Klein, PhD and Shelley Taylor who noted their reactions to work stress were different than their male colleagues.

They started hunting down some studies on how men and women responded to stress to see if there were any distinguishing differences. What they didn’t find were the studies that focused on this but what they did find was that 90% of studies on stress responses were done on men. This led to a drive to include women in stress research and the results confirm what most of us already know: women when stressed will tend and befriend – women automatically respond either by looking for a friend to share with and/or begin care-taking others.

The resulting studies were posted in an article written by Gale Berkowitz in 2002. And as old as it is by scientific standards, it needs repeating because most of us don’t know this study or we have forgotten it. It seems that oxytocin, a calming hormone that’s released after a serious stressful event is supported by estrogen in women – the same calming hormone women release in childbirth that insures bonding – men on the other hand because of high levels of testosterone, may cancel out the oxytocin. Thus, they may behave aggressively or withdraw and wait it out. Women seek out friends and that may be one reason they/we live longer. The Nurses’ Health Study from Harvard Medical School cited in the same article found that “the more friends women have, the less likely they are to develop physical impairments as they age.

This is simplistic by it gives you the idea. Yes, women and men are different. On the other hand, if you have ever been around combat veterans in a group, you will see incredible nurturing and care-taking going on – what they call comradery, women call love.

Two Heart Cells

When two heart cells are brought together and separated by glass, it takes 2 seconds for them to beat in sync.   What is the lesson for us? — it takes effort to stop that process.


Joseph Chilton Pierce



The Tone and Texture of Shame

Shikata ga nai: It cannot be helped.

Carl Watanabe is a Japanese American, an intelligent,  thoughtful, fun, and earnest man. He has been in public radio and public life for many years.  I first met him years ago in his public radio role.  Once I realized that he and I shared WWII from very different perspectives — he was Japanese American and I am native Californian who lived on the San Francisco penninsula — I had to talk with him.

JCampCarl is a 74 years old Californian, an American citizen who has done a life time of psychological and intellectual reflecting and studies around his early experience as a very young child in an assembly camp (his family of four lived in an 8 x 12 white washed horse stall at the Santa Anita Racetrack) and then in an Internment Camp in Arizona with his family — his young mother, his father and his four year old sister. Both his mother and his sister died in the camp which makes the whole experience even more indelible and difficult to leave behind, not that one ever leaves this experiences behind — they are the threads in the life tapestry. As I spent time with Carl one of the subjects we talked about was the experience of shame in the Japanese American community.

“Wait” I said,” shame is an experience that holds true across cultures and history when there is violence and particularly where there are strong tribal and community ties. The person who has survived violence will often feel shame.  It is a common and shared experience in human beings.

Carl: ” I challenge you to be more nuanced in thinking and talking about shame. “

Me “OK, but Carl, please help. “

We exchanged emails on the subject.  The most important musings on the subject were Carl’s.

Here are some excerpts

Shame: The whole Japanese American community (1st generation immigrants from Japan who were still citizens of Japan, U.S. born American citizens, and the children of Nisei, such as me) was ashamed that the country, from which we emanated and were emotionally connected to, Japan, had attacked the country in which we now lived and loved. People like my father understood why the vast majority of America reacted the way it did to the attack on Pearl Harbor (concerning fear of Japanese people). Any attempts to view the event from a rational point of view were doomed to failure (e.g., that we personally had no connection to the fighting; and that we were American citizens (ironically all treated as aliens), imbued with constitutionally defined inalienable rights; and that Italian Americans and German Americans were, for the most part, spared the racism, anger and hatred. Thus, the adults felt helpless in protesting how we were being treated. We were ashamed that this happened, and even though we were not at fault, we had to shoulder the blame. That was inevitable.
There is also shame connected to being locked up and JapanesNoticeincarcerated even though you know you’re innocent. Similarly, the shame of being evicted from your home, having to sell your belongings at bargain prices, at having your belongings being displayed on the street, etc. The shame and helplessness connected with not even being able to protect the lives of your pets and other animals.

Ultimately, for my father and his generation, the shame was also connected with having allowed this (the Incarceration) to happen.

I wrote Carl again and asked if I could publish this.
I’d forgotten that I’d written this. I’d been carrying these thoughts around for most of my life. The impact of being part of a group that had attacked our country had been pushed down within me and kept under the surface. Otherwise, I’d have become too bitter and self-absorbed with collective guilt that I’d be impossible to live with. It’s as if I had a box of forbidden memorabilia kept in an attic hideaway, rarely looked at, but always retained as I moved from house to house.

Yes, publish this.

Soon we will publish Carl’s search for a narrative different than the narrative of the dominant culture, his own and that of his people. This piece talks about Carl’s clarification of identity, meaning and yes, peace. Along with that, an interview with German’s who were also children during that time period.

Andrea Steffens

Waves Wash the Wounded Shore

photo: Hayat Al Husseini

From the fifteenth floor balcony, we were looking  at the Mediterranean spreading its waves on the wounded shore. There were smiles coming at us through the windows from the high rise buildings near by. Children screaming in joy, were finally free to check and see if their neighbors were still alive. Flocks of pigeons were flying across the sky wiping away the smoke and clearing the intense noise of the earlier bombing. Ceasefire was announced.

We stayed up most of the night — the bombing was too loud and we couldn’t sleep when our beds were shaking. So, we spent some of the next day catching up on sleep. During the bombing, I was in a most helpless state, there is nothing we can do – but inside of there was a feeling of power. I wanted to say to those concerned that we are here and we will remain. If we are injured, killed, or displaced along the way, it is understood that it is part of the journey. It is our journey. No need to quit here, because it will not help anyone.
Continue reading

Unable to Speak Their Truth

An Ashlar associate describes a barrier to healing for women in traditional cultures who were raped during war. (note: English is not her native language – these are her words with little editing)

Before the war, our society had close connections, large families which were very close emotionally. Since the war ended, not only had huge losses, with regard to the dead, but also has a sense of detachment, lack of connections. Many large families were separated, often for economic reasons but major changes have occurred in the culture of life. Many people thought that when they were free, everything will be fixed and in fact see that the situation is still very difficult. And now, 15 years after the war, the psychological problems are not cured, in the opposite they are increased. We have hundreds of people that come to our organization seeking help for PTSD, Depression, Anxiety and other psychological problems.

People who experienced different traumatic event don’t hesitate to talk about their trauma – in the opposite they need to talk to someone who listen to them, who understand them, who support them, but when we talk for raped women in our society there is something else they call them self “”the dead among the living.”

Even it is considered that are around 20,000 women from age 12 -50, were raped during the war, just 70 women came to our organization, which is the main center in our country for trauma rehabilitation, talked about their stories!

Stories of raped women begin like: “I was raped from Serb forces …”. Only places differ:  “At home, on the road, in the mountains, on the premises, in school building …”. Differentiate number of times “1, 2, 5, 10th…”! Or, duration: “One day, a week, a month, two…!”

The majority were aged 12 to 45 years, while rapes are done in a group, in the presence of relatives in various facilities and camps. They are accompanied by sadistic acts, cruelty and rudeness unexplained, while most of the victims were killed after rape.

Since the end of the war in Kosova, these victims were left without institutional care, except treatments from women’s organizations, who have dealt with this issue but because of shame and stigma, just few of them seek help, and no one from them talk openly for their experience, because if the talk they will have consequences, So they choose the SILENCE, because they think it has less consequences.
Many women who told their husbands that they was raped from Serbs, are divorced. The young girls that were raped, most of them are married with old people, or someone with disability, or they could not marry after the rape happened. Often, survivors feel ashamed and afraid, and some women even been charged for adultery or even as incitement to violence.

I personally offer therapy for 60 rape victims, and 90% of them didn’t dare to tell their husbands that were rape because of the consequences I mentioned above. We had a case when a women told her husband about the rape, he never saw her like her women any more, but used her for prostitution. This lack of understanding in society and coldness cause additional trauma survivors, which finally gather the courage to talk about their experiences.

After a decade and more, the treatment of sexual violence as a war crime finally is going to have institutional support as the Assembly has decided to know raped victims by law. But now the biggest challenge remains that the victims have to declare as victims of sexual violence, the only possibility to realize their legal right. But they still choose SILENCE , without knowing that their silence is poisoning them and their children… SO WE HAVE TO FIND WAYS TO BREAK THEIR SILENCE, TEACH THEM TO SPEAK , OR SPEAK FOR THEM , BECAUSE WORLD HAS TO KNOW WHAT THEY EXPERIENCED AND ARE STILL EXPERIENCING!

“There is no life for me anymore “

“They don’t recognize us as victims of war, but as victims of shame “

“How I wish to sleep quietly for a single day and see a beautiful dream”

“The enemy wounded our soul, but our people stepped in our wounds “

“I’m not alone, I’m never alone …. shame, pain and suffering are my inseparable company.