Many decades ago my parents got a message from the post office to say that a woman in Australia had telephoned because she was concerned about a relative of ours who had arrived from Ireland and rented a room in her boarding house. He was in such a state of despair that she feared for his life.
I don’t know how my parents dealt with this – like almost everyone else, they didn’t have a telephone – but the man eventually went on to make a life for himself in Australia.
Thinking about him the other day it struck me that this scenario must be repeated in Ireland today for some of the immigrants who arrive here.
We often think of immigrants, refugees, even asylum seekers, in purely economic terms, but what’s happening for them emotionally? How many experience the sort of despair that prompted that woman in Australia to ring an Irish post office?
Not all emigrants, as we know, cope successfully with their emotional pain. I have heard Irish people – and I don’t mean tourists – shouting their angry, drunken way through Leicester Square in London and Downtown, Boston. I smiled ruefully and passed on.
We like to hear of successful emigration stories while the ones who were lost to alcoholism, homelessness or both have passed into the shadows.
Today’s immigrants and even some refugees can, at least, visit home via Ryanair. But many – refugees and asylum seekers – may not ever go back to a home that will never be safe.
A 2017 report from the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland outlines what must be a crushing degree of pain for many of these people: “Asylum seekers have higher levels of psychopathology than the general population. They suffer higher rates of anxiety and depressive disorders than other sections of society. They have up to 10 times the level of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared to the indigenous population.
How many Irish people never or rarely came home from England because they were expected to throw money around when they got here and they couldn’t admit they didn’t have it?
“Most refugees and asylum seekers have not survived a single clear-cut traumatic event, but a collection of negative experiences of war and oppression. A torture experience will not necessarily be clearly separated from the other experiences and for some torture was not their worst experience.”
A person who works with refugees told me of the reversal that some families experience. For instance, you are supposed to be the head of your family but you don’t speak English well or at all. So, increasingly, it’s your school-going children who interpret the world for you and interpret you to the world.
UK search suggests that having to leave your family behind and the challenge of establishing yourself in your new country are sources of depression and anxiety.
Other pressures are more subtle and hardly ever seen by us, the “host” population, especially for immigrants who came here to work. Requests for money, along with the expectation that you will send it, can come from the home country as many an Irish emigrant experienced in the past. The assumption is made that you have money to spare.
Much of the income of the Irish economy came from emigrants. How many Irish people never or rarely came home from England because they were expected to throw money around when they got here and they couldn’t admit they didn’t have it?
On top of this, we have the increasing belligerence of the right wing, with their hatred of immigrants. If I was an immigrant and if I had read the reported messages that passed between the promoters of the recent violence in Dublin, I would be, at the very least, wary when going around and at worst fearful (especially if I was black or brown).
Perhaps I am painting too gloomy a picture. I have left out the bright spots and the success stories. But it is good, I think, to have a rounded and empathetic understanding of people who are here and will always be here.
And who, in many respects, are no different to how we used to be.
- Padraig O’Morain (Instagram, Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His books include Kindfulness – a guide to self compassion; his daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email (email@example.com).