How do we heal from pain? The answer to that ancient and universal question may be found by studying how the world's refugees cope with suffering, said Mary Pipher, PhD, the keynote speaker at APA's 2001 Annual Convention.
"Refugees have much to teach us," said Pipher. "They have suffered more than most of us, but they have also recovered more than most of us." And in this new century, she believes, "we are going to increasingly draw from the mental health systems of other people."
Author of the New York Times best-selling book "Reviving Ophelia" among other titles, Pipher has just finished writing "The Middle of Everywhere: The World's Refugees Come to Nebraska," on the influx of immigrants that have converged on Lincoln, her hometown.
Their stories are often heartbreaking. "I met a woman from Srebrenica, who had seen 22 people in her family killed in one day," she said. "I met a woman from Sierra Leone who was in Freetown the day that 6,000 people had their hands and feet cut off."
Her research for the book has underscored for her the important roles psychologists can play in fostering healing after trauma. Among them is helping people turn their painful stories into meaningful ones that offer new possibilities, she said.
"Victor Frankel wrote that while he was in a concentration camp, he discovered that everything could be taken from a person, but one thing: the ability to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances," she said. "And we can help people choose a good attitude."
Pipher, who majored in cultural anthropology at Berkeley as an undergraduate, has always been interested in the intersection of anthropology and psychology. But having lived in Lincoln, Neb., for most of her adult life, she experienced few cultures--until recently.
"Just in the last few years, things have changed dramatically in our hometown, and they are changing all over America," she said.
Lincoln has become an official resettlement community, a place where refugees from all over the world are sent when they come to the United States. "They don't have any choice about this," she explained. "When they get off of the plane, they are met by an INS person, who hands them a ticket to Lincoln." And most don't know where Nebraska is. "I've had a lot of refugees tell me they thought they were going to Alaska. They expected it to be colder here, with polar bears and ice," she said.
Now her once-homogeneous hometown is home to people who speak 32 languages. She and her husband have sponsored a couple of refugee families. Researching her book has given her the unique opportunity to study immigrants from all over the world, she said, "and then to go home and sleep in my own bed."
What helps them recover, she found, is family, community and personal characteristics such as flexibility, sense of humor, hope, resiliency and the ability to find new people to love and attach to.
And, she said, refugees fare better when they have a welcoming host community. "It helps to have people who have some empathy for the pain that they have experienced," she said. "All of us can do that."