The Trauma of Separation

11-year-old girl tearfully pleads for dad's release after massive ICE raid
11-year-old girl tearfully pleads for dad’s release after a massive ICE raid.

Last Thursday, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) raided several agricultural processing plants across Mississippi and arrested 680 individuals, mainly Latino immigrants, who were deemed to be working “unlawfully” at the plants.

First Day of School

Thursday also happened to be the first day of school in Mississippi. This meant that many children were not picked up from school or daycare at the end of their day and many went home from school to find doors locked and their parents absent. Some of these kids returned back to their schools in desperation, where they slept in makeshift shelters, put together by school staff and volunteers. Others were taken in by strangers or relatives. 

When my kids were younger, I remember having to leave work in a rush and navigate the traffic hour in order to get to them on time. On the rare occasion that I was a few minutes late, I remember my heart pounding all the way to the school along with the hurt on their tiny faces once I arrived. “Where were you?” They would ask, trying to suppress tears. “I got scared.” Those were the most painful minutes. 

Those were the most painful minutes. 

Escaping Iran

I also know something about this from personal experience. My family escaped Iran on foot in 1981, when I was only 10 years old. In writing my memoir, I realized the scariest part of our escape to safety, was the time that I was separated from my parents for about six to eight hours.

We had just arrived in Turkey, in the middle of the night, after several days and nights in the mountains. We needed to split up into two cars for the final leg of our journey, so I was sent ahead in a separate car to our next destination. My mother and two sisters followed the next morning.

It’s important to note that by this time I had already lived through the violent Islamic Revolution in 1978, which had no shortage of bloodshed, I had experienced the horrors of war when Iran went into battle with Iraq in 1980, there had been soldiers inside my house, I had seen dead bodies on our porch and had guns pointed at our heads during our escape. Still, all of that was less scary than being separated from my parents for those few hours. 

Talking Trauma

I could tell you about why people take these risks. I could tell you about the gut-wrenching, decision-making process that leads a family into unknown territory. I could tell you about how bad things actually have to get before one decides to escape the only place they’ve ever called home. I’m writing a whole book about it, but I won’t get into that here. I’m also not here to offer sweeping immigration reform solutions. I’m not here to speak about who is to blame, or who’s at fault for our “immigration problem” in the first place. I’m also not here to explain why these arrests are different than, let’s say a DUI arrest. 

I want to talk to you about trauma instead. I have worked as a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of California since 2008 and I have worked primarily with trauma survivors since 2012. I have focused my life and career on helping individuals heal from the effects of adverse experiences in their lives and can tell you that trauma lives inside our bodies long after the traumatic event ends and the shock wears off.

Trauma’s Long-Lasting Effects

I can tell you that for those children who were separated from their parents and for all of the thousands who are currently detained at our borders, this trauma will have long-lasting effects. Trauma shows up in my office daily as depression, anxiety, addiction, and suicidal ideation. Early childhood trauma also shows up as high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and other health problems well into adulthood.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control has found that adverse childhood experiences have been linked to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential, and early death.

The Worst Night of My Life

I am writing a memoir about this period of my life. A lot of what my family went through in the late 70s Iran, is painful to remember and to write about. Writing has been a slow process for this reason and I had expected that. But my response to writing about this brief period of separation was surprising even to myself. The pain felt current, unresolved, and raw as if my body had held onto it all of this time, waiting for a safe enough place, to finally put it all down.

The night I was separated from my parents was the worst night of my life. Thirty-eight years later, I sobbed while writing about it. I realized that I have never been able to think about those few hours without a feeling of panic rising in my chest. Not once. I built a wall around my heart that night and shoved down all emotions deep inside of me. It would take decades of corrective connections and years of therapy before I had access to any softness within myself once again. 

However, we might justify these arrests, however, “short term” we might think the separation will last, these events will be traumatic for those parents and their children and will have long term effects. On Friday, 300 of those arrested Thursday were released, which begs the question: Why were they arrested in the first place? 

Is This Who We Are?

We should all care more. How we treat people matters. Are we contributing to trauma or are we perpetuating it? Is this who we are? Are we willing and ready to deal with the outcomes of these events for years and generations to come? Because as a nation, we will have to eventually deal with what happens next, one way or another. All of us bear responsibility and all of us pay a price. We can’t look away. Please don’t look away.

Meet Mahshid

The author, Mahshid Hager

Mahshid Fashandi Hager is a therapist turned writer. In her work as a therapist, she offers treatment and support to survivors of trauma. She first began writing as a way to process her own traumatic history of immigration but, soon discovered the power of sharing her stories with others. In her upcoming memoir, No Way Back, Mahshid takes us on a journey back through her childhood as she recalls her family’s trials and tribulations during the Iranian revolution, the war with Iraq, and her family’s subsequent, inevitable escape from their home. Mahshid’s story serves as a resource for anyone who aims to understand the plight of refugees and immigrant families in our world today.

3 comments on “The Trauma of Separation

  1. Right on Mahshid. This is such an important message. Those of us who see the results of intergenerational trauma (I’m a therapist too) can see what an enormous personal, social and national cost these ‘policy’ practices will bring about down the road. After all, we are still as a nation reeling from the cruelty perpetuated upon other social groups past and present. The solutions involve kindness and compassion in our approaches, and yes our policies. While big picture changes are vital, it’s important to note that kindness to a child in such a situation does make a difference. Vast action is needed- preceded by awareness. Thanks for bringing light to this enormous issue. When wondering “what can I do?” it is good to be reminded that writing and artistic expression does make a difference for both the reader and the creator.

    • Thank you for your comments Nicola. You make such an important point regarding kindness. Kindness of strangers did so much for me in my journey. It ultimately helped me slowly gain trust in other human beings again. Thank you for your part in helping our community heal from the effects of trauma. I appreciate all you do. 🙂

  2. I am deeply touched. Thank you, Mashid. I’ve felt many of the things you described but do not have the immigration experience that informs me, just the childhood trauma that I know stays with us forever. I am so appreciative that you are sharing your story and experience to make the “political” so much more personal. I believe there is so much fear that people are not able to tap into their own basic capacity for compassion and decency. But when courageous individuals like you share your story it helps us all to see that this is not a time to be silent and passive. Thank you for opening my heart. I appreciate you so very much.

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