‘Rewarding’ Immigrant Experience Compels Chicagoan to Aid Refugees

Shaifali Sandhya (Kristen Thometz / Chicago Tonight)Shaifali Sandhya (Kristen Thometz / Chicago Tonight)

Chicagoan Shaifali Sandhya knows what it’s like to be a foreigner.

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“Being an immigrant is an incredibly rewarding experience, especially in America because you’re confronted with dreams and possibilities,” said Sandhya, who arrived in Chicago in 1996 to pursue a doctorate in psychology from the University of Chicago. “The world is your oyster.”

A native of New Delhi, she’s also lived in Tanzania, Libya, the United Kingdom. She says she’s still trying to make Chicago her home after more than two decades of living and working in the city as a psychologist.

“I consider myself a mongrel, neither here nor there despite my American citizenship,” she said. “I love the big hearts of the people in Chicago. ... I really enjoy the connections and the friendships that I’ve been able to foster in Chicago, and the welcome that I have received in Chicago when I was a student here, and that continues even to today.”

While she’s had a very rewarding and positive experience, Sandhya acknowledges that the life of an immigrant is very different than that of a refugee. After the election of Donald Trump, she noticed a lot of “angst” surrounding the refugee crisis.

Though she had not worked with refugees before, Sandhya felt compelled to do something. 

“It’s a calling, and I think we all have it in us,” she said of her advocacy for refugees. “Look at what’s happening around the country: People who weren’t advocates before have become advocates today because the situation needs that from us.”

To better understand the plight of refugees, Sandhya conducted a fact-finding trip to Germany last November to interview Syrian and Afghani refugees living in refugee camps.  

“Refugees who flee from war-torn countries are incredibly unique. On average, a refugee from a war-torn country has had to endure two years of incredible hardship,” Sandhya said. “They’ve had to decide the act of leaving. They’ve had to muster at least $10,000 to provide robbers, smugglers, human traffickers and – mind you – this is in a place where the average annual income may be $300.”

“We have to understand that we are not alone in our phobias. Assimilating in a new culture is also very scary for these refugees.”

–Shaifali Sandhya

Most refugees make at least two or three attempts to flee before doing so successfully, according to Sandhya, and when they do leave their homes, it often involves long journeys by foot and sea.

“But more significantly than anything, they’ve witnessed repeated brutalities against themselves, against their significant others, [and] their fellow passengers,” she said. “They’ve endured incredible amounts of trauma during these journeys.”

These “silent traumas,” as Sandhya calls them, can manifest for years, even decades, and affect their abilities to resettle. 

Hassan’s Story

While in Bonn, Germany, Sandhya met a Syrian refugee whom she calls Hassan. Hassan was a tailor in Syria with a wife and two children. “In 2006, he was pulled out from his shop, and Bashar [al-Assad’s] troops got him and took him to a secret prison where he was held for six months,” Sandhya said.

Hassan was labeled a “traitor” by the government, and “he was tortured for six months in this prison,” Sandhya said. Hassan was given a presidential pardon, along with a “severe warning” and a requirement to report back to the government in June 2011.

Five days before Hassan was to report to the government, he fled the country with his family. “They walked for kilometers on end, and they walked for days and months in the midsummer heat of June in Syria, and they came to Istanbul,” Sandhya said.

Hassan traveled onto Germany, but his family remains in Istanbul – primarily because the family can’t afford the $10,000 per person smugglers are asking for passports.

Hassan could’ve applied for asylum status in Germany, but he chose not to. “He was afraid to voice his persecution and his torture in Syria because he was afraid that nobody would believe him,” Sandhya said.

Hassan has been in Germany for 18 months, and while he talks to his wife daily, he has yet to speak with his children because “it’s too painful,” Sandhya said.

Hear more about Hassan's story in the video below.

While Hassan and his fellow refugees are in a safe haven country, their homelands are never far away thanks to technology.

“If a bomb goes off in Syria or Afghanistan, or if the Taliban attacks their homes, their lives are very dismantled, and it affects their integration,” Sandhya said, adding refugees’ distress manifest physically in the form of “debilitating” headaches.

“They have issues with constantly living in fear and huge loneliness because they’re away from their home,” she added. “They have problems connecting with people. ... Many of them may not know the language, so they aren’t able to communicate.”

Discovering the ‘Invisible’ Stories

An Afghani man at a protest in Greece in 2016. (Courtesy of Shaifali Sandhya)An Afghani man at a protest in Greece in 2016. (Courtesy of Shaifali Sandhya) Understanding refugees’ stories and the challenges they face are more important than their country of origin or religion in prognosticating how well they will integrate in a society, says Sandhya.

“Our government’s focusing mostly on religion and the country of origin as a basis of resettlement. This may or may not be right,” Sandhya said of President Donald Trump’s travel ban. “The most important determinative factors in a refugee’s success are psychological factors. ...

“It is important for us to understand how these war-stricken Syrians will fare or Afghanis will fare in our society. It is to focus less on our understanding of Islam and focus more on the understanding of the circumstances that bring us here.”

Sandhya does not dismiss the fear some may have of terror attacks fueled by Islamist ideology, but she says people should keep in mind that immigrants and refugees have fears, too.

“We have to understand that we are not alone in our phobias. Assimilating in a new culture is also very scary for these refugees,” said Sandhya, who -- in addition to being an immigrant herself – has experience counseling immigrant families. “They fear of a society where family ties are not given as much importance, where folks worry about themselves before they worry about your own, and where boundless freedom can threaten longstanding cultural values.”

While Trump has said the executive order would protect the country from terrorists, the fear and confusion it has created may cause more harm than good.

“Creating more fear in communities may not be the best solution,” Sandhya said. Rather the government should work methodically to try and understand the “different perspectives of these different communities [and] how psychological impairment leads to them becoming less than successful refugees.”

In the video below, Sandhya explains how trauma can impact refugees differently and how that can affect their abilities to resettle successfully by comparing the resettlement of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees in America. 

To better understand the trauma refugees face, Sandhya is hoping to return to refugee camps in Germany and visit others in Greece and Istanbul to conduct more detailed interviews.

“This is work that governments are not doing right now and it is very necessary to do this kind of work to understand how these invisible stories of refugees impact their chances of successful resettlement for years to come, and also the psychological adaptation and health of their children and their families for years to come,” Sandhya said. 

While she funded her first trip to Europe, Sandhya is seeking donations via a GoFundMe page to help pay for travel expenses, translators and transcription, as well as quantitative and qualitative analyses by psychology professionals.

“What is really important for us to understand [is] how we want to deal with undealt trauma for the future and for the future success of our resettled refugees wherever they might be in the U.S.,” she said. “It’s safer for us and better for them if we proceed in a methodical manner to understand, you know, these perspectives from different communities.”

Follow Kristen Thometz on Twitter: @KristenThometz

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