Lay refugees' ghosts to rest

23rd May 2008 at 01:00
Reminiscence is the best remedy for pupils bearing scars from their homelands, writes Adi Bloom
Reminiscence is the best remedy for pupils bearing scars from their homelands, writes Adi Bloom

Pupils traumatised by early events in their lives can present particular challenges to teachers.

But Michael O'loughlin believes refugee children are not only traumatised by events in their own past, they can also be haunted by traumas endured by their parents or even grandparents.

Children belonging to ethnic or cultural groups that have experienced displacement, persecution or loss may find that the post-traumatic reaction does not emerge until years later.

Dr O'Loughlin, of Adelphi University in Australia, believes that children whose parents have been displaced or persecuted may display similar symptoms, in response to their parents' long-term traumas. He refers to this inherited trauma as "ghosts in the nursery ... transmitted from parent to child".

"These memories, currently unthought and unspoken, represent a psychic burden for children and communities," he said.

Inherited trauma can take a number of forms. For Aborigines, it can be dispossession of ancestral land. For Indians or Pakistanis, it can be living under colonialism. More recently, it could stem from massacre, persecution or genocide.

"What is often characterised by authorities as oppositional, pathological or deviant behaviour may well be unconscious responses to culturally transmitted trauma," says Dr O'Loughlin says. "The argument applies to children from all groups who have histories of either collective historical trauma or familial trauma."

Such children often feel a lack in their lives, a symptom of a truncated cultural history. Dr O'Loughlin believes that teachers have a duty to help them engage with this and heal. They should be willing to incorporate elements of pupils' cultural histories into lessons.

He recommends that teachers should to be trained to identify unconscious signs of trauma: the ways in which pupils ask for help without realising it. And he suggests that teachers are given a basic grounding in psychoanalysis techniques, so they can recognise these signs and respond appropriately.

More importantly, teachers should always be prepared to listen to pupils' experiences.

"Reanimation of ancestral memories and reconnection to latent pasts can be facilitated by drama performance; participation in rituals; viewing of films; reading novels, poetry and myths; and by experiencing folklore," he says.

Teachers could also try referring to their own experiences in lessons, thus giving pupils implicit permission to discuss their own memories.

The classroom should provide a space where all children can explore their sense of identity and achieve a sense of self-worth, enabling them to take pride in their ethnic or cultural origins.

The curriculum should be seen as an organic process that is constructed for local children with their involvement and the involvement of the community.

"Teachers might consider themselves as documentarians of the collective unconscious of the community," says Dr O'Loughlin.

'Recreating the Social Link Between Children and their Histories' by Michael O'Loughlin


- Refugee children may have difficulty concentrating in class or engaging with the teacher.

- A noise or movement can trigger memories of a traumatic event.

- They may find it hard to trust people because of past betrayal.

- They may behave inappropriately if, say, they have been sexually assaulted by asking other children to pull their pants down.

- They may draw violent images.

- They may be quick to anger.

Learn to respond

- Do not label pupils as refugees - this can lead to ostracism and bullying that recreates past trauma.

- Be aware that they may find it upsetting being asked to write or talk about their families in class.

- Be aware that trauma can lead to developmental delays.

- Accept they may cry or become anxious for no obvious reason.

- Be ready to listen, but never pressure them into talking.

- Offer mentors and interpreters.

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