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Nesting Dolls as a Metaphor for Multiple Levels of Trauma

Today, trauma is on my mind. It is impossible to overstate the traumas that asylum seekers carry with them. The fact that the U.S. government is quite purposefully adding more layers to their trauma is unconscionable. A friend of mine, Kate Savannah, recently gave an excellent talk on trauma at an Oregon Community Asylum Network (OCAN) meeting. It’s something that all of us working with asylum seekers need to know.


To help understand what asylum seekers face, imagine a set of nesting dolls. For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, nesting dolls are brightly painted wooden dolls that separate at the middle, revealing an incrementally smaller doll inside each one.


As you read, imagine this to be the experience of you and your family. The examples here focus on Central America, but similar models could be created for asylum seekers from other places.


The Nesting Dolls of Trauma


Layer 1 The tiniest nesting doll in the center (but the largest one, really) represents the primary trauma—500 years of colonialism and imperialism. It is from this primary trauma that everything else flows—from the conquest by the Spaniards and the ensuing genocide up to more contemporary times with the U.S.-backed “regime change” in Guatemala, the propping up of authoritarian regimes in Honduras and El Salvador, and the counterinsurgency warfare throughout all of Latin America. It’s important to remember that you and many other Central American men, women, and children at the U.S. border today are there largely because of U.S. intervention in Central America over the past hundred years.


Layer 2 Family trauma (physical, sexual, emotional abuse) inflicted on you and members of your immediate family.


Layer 3 Trauma inflicted by political and gang violence within your home community, including threats of violence directed toward you and/or family members, both adults and children, or actual violence carried out; disappearances; kidnappings; torture; rape; the burning of houses and businesses; and the killing of friends or family members (perhaps witnessed by you).


Layer 4 The trauma of fleeing, leaving everything you know, sometimes without the chance to even say goodbye to your family and friends, all for the hope of finding a safe haven for you and your family.


Layer 5 The trauma of a journey of 2000 to 3000 miles over many months and under grueling conditions—violence at the hand of federal police, paramilitary groups, and other armed actors; the violence of transit by train; the insecurity and the length of the journey; the possibility (or reality) of rape and sexual assault, extortion, and kidnapping along the way; the relentless walking, sometimes navigating extremely dangerous situations through all kinds of weather and geography that may include water, deserts, and jungles.


Layer 6 The trauma of finally arriving at the Tijuana border and being told you can’t cross. Instead, you are asked to “take a number” and wait for it to be called, a wait that is now estimated to be at least four months, probably longer.


Layer 7 The trauma of staying in Tijuana, of trying to survive and protect your children in a dangerous, big city where you didn’t expect to stay. You don’t have money to last that long. Your children have already been out of school for months, you are physically and mentally exhausted from the stressful journey, and now you are crammed into an overcrowded shelter with nothing to do for days on end except wait. Depression and suicidal thoughts are common.


Layer 8 The trauma of finally crossing, only to be met with the U.S.’s official “Welcome to America” symbol, the hielera, or ice-box, kept at around 40 degrees. This is the concrete windowless cell where you and your family, including children, will be cruelly confined for 3-18 days. When you are finally released, you may be bounced back into Tijuana, dumped in a San Diego park at midnight with a dead cell phone, or sent to a detention center. The hope of joining your family members or your sponsor in the U.S. grows dimmer by the day.


Layer 9 Now, pretend you are lucky enough to make it out of detention and arrive at a sponsor’s house. Your trauma has not ended. Extremely difficult terrain looms ahead for you and other asylum seekers in the same situation, made worse by all the political uncertainty of what will ultimately happen. Adrenalin and a strong fight-or-flight response has allowed you to persevere for many months. Now you are safe. You can begin to relax and even to sleep, but now all the trauma you’ve buried for so long bubbles to the surface of your consciousness.


Everything is nice, and you are grateful, but it is ALL foreign and new—the language, the customs, the food, the money, the environment—everything. You are suddenly a new member of a household, much like an older adopted child, when you’ve lived on your own for decades. Trauma impacts brain function, and your brain isn’t functioning properly, which makes learning anything difficult to impossible. You are anxious to work and earn money and get your own place, but those dreams are a very long way off, especially without English language skills. You miss your family back home, but the dream of bringing them here seems a long way off as well, and anything but certain. It’s hard to feel motivated to do, or enjoy, even fun things.


The healing of trauma takes time and patience—and the help of professionals who can guide the process and hold the space for someone who feels extremely vulnerable and alone, even though welcomed to their new community by the kindest people imaginable.


I’m thinking about all of this as we welcome women and children to La Casa de Paso in Tijuana. While they are with us they have a short respite from everything they’ve been through, but it’s only a breather, enough time for us to help prepare them as best we can: physically, mentally, and emotionally for the hard road that lies ahead.


Above all, we let them know we care.