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“When a refugee gets here, it’s like a toddler taking their first steps”

Interview. We spoke to Patricia Jirón, psychologist at the Centre Exil and an exile from Pinochet’s Chile.

Patricia Jirón (Santiago de Chile, 1957) was 18 when she went into exile in Venezuela with her parents and two brothers. He father, Arturo Jirón, was Minister of Health during the Popular Unity government and President Salvador Allende’s personal doctor. He was with him when the military coup bombed the Palacio de la Moneda on 11 September 1973 and one of the few people with him in the final moments before his death. Jirón survived, but became a political prisoner. He spent ten months in a concentration camp on Dawson Island in the Strait of Magellan and then remained under house arrest. In 1975 the family decided to leave everything behind and leave the country.

Arturo Jirón returned to Chile when democracy was restored. His daughter only went back to live there for a year and a half, even though she asserts that she still feels nostalgic and it’s something one must learn to live with. She has lived in Barcelona since 1987 and has been working as a psychologist at the Centre Exil since the year 2000. This pioneering association, created in Belgium, provides support for the victims of military dictatorships in South America in the 70s and psycho-social medical help for people persecuted and subject to human rights violations in the home countries, as well as integrated support for children and adults affected by family violence and gender violence.

Your career seems to have been influenced by the history of your country.

I can’t deny that. At first you don’t realise how it influences you. When we had to go into exile in Venezuela, I started studying psychology without thinking that later I would work supporting people fleeing their countries because of conflicts, persecution or violence they have suffered. It’s a way of connecting with my own background and giving back everything I’ve received from the countries which have taken me in. Connecting my personal history with the work I do as a professional is something very natural for me and I think it helps me in the way I empathise and with the bond I establish with people seeking help and support.

Do you see yourself reflected in them?

They always ask us if, as professionals, we suffer and relive our own personal stories. I can’t deny there are similarities. We had to flee after my father spent ten months in a concentration camp on Dawson Island. After that he was under house arrest and as a result he had no prospect at all of working and we went into exile in Venezuela. At that time Venezuela took in a great number of people fleeing the military dictatorships in Chile, Uruguay and Argentina. It’s a country which welcomed us with open arms and integrated us in a really kind way, with privileged treatment I’d say. However, in South America, like in Europe, although with the exception of Brazil we speak a common language, we have very different cultures and idiosyncrasies. The adaptation process I went through in Venezuela allows me to understand here what it means to be a refugee and adapt to a new culture, breaking with affective and social networks. It’s a real challenge and highly stressful, an accumulative stress, the stress of the violence you experience in your home country and another type of stress when you get to a new place to live, the stress of how you’re going to reinvent your life.

What was your experience of that?

When my father was on Dawson Island, I was in my last year of college. I was at an experimental and progressive college and there were three of us in the same class who had parents who were political prisoners in different parts of Chile. I’m not sure how, but I managed to pass everything. I studied as best I could. You’re not aware of the fear you’re experiencing, of people close to you who have been detained or who have disappeared, of people being assassinated in the street or of the curfew. You hardly have time to react or really assimilate it. It’s something so new that you wouldn’t have imagined it. The change in Venezuela was a big shock. However well they took us in, it’s a society which is so different that all the effort you put into adapting overshadows the ability to take in and accept everything you’ve left behind you. You focus on the problem you need to resolve. Some things are more important that others and that’s where you apply your energy. I started to be aware of many personal things when I started working with these people.

What’s most traumatic for the exiled people you help: the reason for them fleeing, the journey, the arrival?

Everything. They’re different types of stress. The stress they go through in their countries of origin is set in a context they know. The sort of violence they experience there is traumatic and can be brutal, but it’s in their environment, it’s what they’ve been through and what they know and, sometimes, they even know how to defend themselves and protect themselves. When they get here they’re like toddlers learning to walk and to live, as often they don’t know the language, the culture, and the contact between people is very different and they’re really lost.

I also work for a programme in collaboration with Amnesty International which brings people who stand up for human rights to Spain for a year, protecting people who are threatened or have suffered attacks or persecution. It’s really tough and it’s something else I’d like to point out. In their home countries they were leaders, self-assured, sticking up for an ideal, and they get here and when they finish the programme they become just another immigrant. They’re people who don’t have the identity they had in their own countries. They themselves say they end up on the bottom rung of the social ladder and that causes great suffering. It means facing up to very important decisions: either I go back to my country and carry on fighting for a fairer world or I stay here to save myself and to survive.

Doesn’t that also apply to many refugees and immigrants?

I see that people who have suffered social injustice in their own countries and come from a humble socio-economic background get here and can value the difference between stability in a safer economic environment, and in these cases they’re grateful. But people with high levels of education and very good economic conditions lose much more when there come here and go through a critical conflict: to work doing whatever they can to be self-sufficient and make do with not working in the profession or trade they trained for, as it’s incredibly difficult to get their qualifications officially recognised and equate their experience. Those who manage to have a professional role here are very few. It’s tough, as they feel undervalued and have to mourn their professional career, which is part of their identity.

You have to be really strong, emotionally stable and self-assured. You have to be stable to handle the uncertainty all around you.

Spain denies protection to many asylum seekers. Is that another trauma?

Yes, because it’s a sensation of vulnerability, of insecurity and of constantly facing an uncertain future. You have to be really strong, emotionally stable and self-assured. You have to be stable to handle the uncertainty all around you. What we see is that if someone has a solid affective and emotional childhood in terms of family and what is around them, generally they respond better to the stress of the changes as they’re very stable and have more personal resources. They’re factors which help them handle the overall uncertainty of migration, of how a country will receive you. There’s also the fact that many of them come with expectations which then don’t correspond to the reality. Perhaps they’ve believed accounts they’ve been told that simply getting to Europe is a guarantee of stability and future prospects. They can’t know from there how difficult the situation is here and that support policies for refugees are not the best. Many say that if they’d known, they would have gone to Germany as they think there are more refugee support policies there.

What’s the role of the professional?

Complicated, it’s a big challenge. We also have to take care of ourselves. Sometimes not even basic needs are covered and psychological support is no panacea, we have no magic wands and neither will we solve their lives. But we’re aware that it’s better to have this support than not to have it, and that the first thing is to contain, calm and console people. That’s very important so that people can keep calmer and have better tools to confront adversity. We can’t cure, as we don’t see them as being ill. We see them as people, who sometimes have psychological reactions which are a concern, but what are normal reactions to abnormal situations they’ve been through and all the violence they’ve had to face. It’s important they have a place of safety and trust here, someone to listen to them and who is able to recognise their suffering, their loss, the pain they must go through, and to empathise to a point where a bond is formed. It’s like a substitute family, even though it’s not the same. People start to feel better as they form affective ties with the host country and their resilience processes start to kick in.

Isn’t there a tendency for isolation?

Exactly, and it’s very dangerous. Isolation makes mental problems a big risk. The task of social work here is to help people to get away from isolation, connecting them with people they feel comfortable with. We carry out a little psycho-education of explaining the risks and helping them understand what tools they can use to get through the frustration, the impotence and desperation.

What are the predominant feelings? Frustration, desperation, also anger or fear?

Not so much fear. I’d say they’ve been so afraid in their home countries that when they get here the feeling of safety, that they won’t be killed at any moment, stands out. Fear of the future, yes, but I see it more as impotence, frustration and also great sadness and nostalgia for what they have left behind and lost. Some have not only left their family there, but lost them as they were killed. Being aware of all that and faced with your story, accepting and learning to live with it is a process which takes a long time and sometimes you haven’t even got time to do that as you’re here trying to get papers, find out if you’ll ever have a decent flat and in particular, whether you’ll find work. Work is what gives people dignity. We shouldn’t fool ourselves, if someone can’t feel part of society they remain in limbo. That somebody must have the chance of getting work so they can manage their own life and not always depend on social support.

Is being independent and learning to live with it the key?

It’s fundamental. I always tell my patients: we can’t change the facts. What happened, happened, what occurred in your life, occurred, however brutal it may have been. What we can change is the way we interpret these events, to be able to find a meaning to what we’ve been through, to be able to deal with that story better, taking it on board as something which happened and which, in many cases, we could do nothing to prevent. Shedding any blame and accepting this new life opportunity, which may also mean positive changes. Not everything is negative, it’s also an opportunity that life gives you to live differently and patch up your wounds as you go along.

Everyone giving up their homeland needs a human group to take them in.

What other tools do they have available to them to confront adversity?

I think everyone must passionately look for what does them good, what things help them resist. Very often I tell my patients they have to look for life’s meaningful things, what is good for them, so they can get through this tough period and handle the changes they’re going through. If they don’t know what is good for them, then to know what is bad for them and try to avoid it. Everyone has to look for something that helps them feel alright. In my case it was sport, I’ve always done sport. I was in the Chilean national volleyball team and then in the university team in Venezuela. That’s a very important factor: Everyone giving up their homeland needs a human group to take them in. I found mine with sport. Other people do so through music, art and so on. As Viktor Frankl said: “Say yes to life, despite everything”. I would add: “Despite everything and everything we go through, thank life”.


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