Migration, Trauma, and Resilience: Legal, Medical, and Policy-based Perspectives

Watch the full webinar, held on March 31, above, or visit our website.

“Trauma leaves marks even if somebody is resilient through it… weathering something does leave a mark, leaves physical and psychological imprints, and it can’t always, or even often, be completely erased or reversed.”

While individual experiences may vary immensely, the process of migration always involves some level of trauma — before, during, and even after one’s journey. Many acknowledge the existence of trauma and resilience among migrants, from refugees to internally displaced people, unaccompanied minors, asylum seekers, and many others. There is less discussion, however, of the impact and manifestations of this trauma on individuals, families, communities, and countries as a whole.

In recognition of the need to better understand these consequences, the Berkeley Interdisciplinary Migration Initiative hosted a panel on Migration, Trauma, and Resilience, aiming to spotlight the need to study, research, and alleviate trauma in social, economic, political, and legal contexts.

The conversation was full of insights, and the panelists each brought a unique perspective from which to explore questions related to trauma and resilience. Tsui H. Yee, founder of the Law Offices of Tsui H. Yee P.C., brought over two decades of experience as an immigration attorney, as well as personal insight as a descendant of Chinese migrants. Yee shared knowledge she has gained working with extremely traumatized clients, who often experience further trauma at the hands of the US legal system.

Dr. Gunisha Kaur, Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology, Founding Director of the Human Rights Impact Lab, and Co-Medical Director of the Weill Cornell Center for Human Rights, approaches this subject from the medical and human rights fields. As she shared during the panel, her work goes beyond documenting trauma and aims to mitigate or even reverse it.

During the panel, Dr. Kaur explained the connection between anesthesiology and trauma: “Anesthesiologists are very familiar with what the body looks like under strain and under stress. I use that experience to understand refugee patients and communities, how they carry that trauma on their bodies. What does it look like on the body? What does trauma look like on the mind? What are the real, very physical symptoms, like palpitations or chest pain, shortness of breath, signs of trauma that I see in my refugee patients.”

The third panelist, Leah Spelman, is the Executive Director of Partnerships for Trauma Recovery (PTR), a Berkeley-based non-profit. PTR provides mental health care, case management, outreach, and training for clinicians and other social service providers. PTR’s clients are all refugees and asylum seekers who have been forcibly displaced due to violence and persecution.

The panel was moderated by Dr. Khatarya Um, Associate Professor of Asian American and Asian Diaspora studies in the Department of Ethnic Stories, and Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the University of California. Dr. Um is a survivor of the Cambodian genocide and forced migration herself, and the author of From the Land of Shadows: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Cambodian Diaspora, among other works.

These speakers brought a depth of knowledge, passion, and first-hand experience with this subject. They began by discussing how trauma and resilience show up in their work and how they aim to support survivors of trauma. For example, Yee describes how PTSD prevented one of her clients from filing an asylum application by the one-year deadline, causing him to be placed in deportation proceedings, another traumatizing experience. And while resilience in the face of such trauma is often necessary for one’s survival, Dr. Kaur emphasizes the toll of trauma even on the most resilient of people: “Trauma leaves marks even if somebody is resilient through it. I think a great example of this is what people say about children — children are resilient, children can weather almost anything — and while that’s true, weathering something does leave a mark, leaves physical and psychological imprints, and it can’t always, or even often, be completely erased or reversed. So, while we do see resiliency everywhere almost astounding mind-blowing resiliency that we see, and strength that we see it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily the preferable route.”

The conversation encompassed a number of important topics, including the policy changes which could better address the needs of trauma survivors, training that medical providers, case workers, law students, and others who interact with migrants should receive, how individuals can support immigrant populations in their communities, and so much more. The panel was incredibly informative, full of thoughtful questions, responses, and insights, and is hopefully only the beginning of the conversation around trauma and resilience. For those interested, the full recording and written transcript can be found here.

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Thank you to our event co-sponsors: IRLE, Center for Study of Law and Society (CSLS), Center for Race & Gender, Institute of Governmental Studies, Social Science Matrix, Othering and Belonging Institute, Asian Pacific American Student Development, Center for Research on Social Change, The Institute for South Asian Studies

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