I have been working with refugees, immigrants and expats for the last 16 years, and this experience has been indescribable. It is extremely rewarding for me, and our GAC team, to be able to help others in their cultural adjustment process. Being a first-generation immigrant myself, moving from Brazil to the USA, makes me understand this process from at least three different perspectives, my own, my family's and my clients'. I feel extremely grateful for learning about different cultural perspectives shared by many amazing clients who have crossed my path in search of help to become healthier, happier and better educated.
Immigration has been largely discussed politically around the globe, but one key point that seems to be neglected in most political and social discussions, is the emotional and psychological dimensions of this complex issue.
My first experience, that I can remember, interacting in a close relationship with someone from a different culture was when I was at 4th grade. My best friend at school had moved to Brazil with her family as refugees from Angola. They had to flee from their country because of a civil war that started just after Angola became independent from Portugal. Her father was a professor and was persecuted because of his political views. I was puzzled and confused by her stories, I couldn't believe how knowledgeable she was about politics in her country, and how brave she was to trust me to share her stories of fear and pain. I was mostly intrigued by her emotional reactions to some situations that were completely normal for me and our other friends. She was always stepping on the edge, she was never relaxed, she was very kind and polite, but suddenly had bursts of anger, she would shake sometimes, the palm of her hands would be cold and sweaty, she would search for shelter every time she heard some time of sound or noise she couldn't recognize.
My friend visited me at home on a weekend. My brother was playing with me that he was the police and I was the criminal. It was like a hide-and-seek game, that when the police find the criminal, they point the gun and arrest or kill the person. Then we would change roles. When he found me, he pointed his toy gun to me and pressed the trigger, which reproduced a gun sound, and said: "I got you! Now you are dead!", then I fell on the ground and played dead for a couple of seconds. I had no idea that our game, that now I think that it was horrible and violent, would cause my friend to have such a strong reaction. She had a panic attack, couldn't breathe well, was shaky, sweaty, chocking, and pale. I freaked out and wanted to run to call my mom. She held my hand and asked me to stay by her, just quiet because she knew what she was supposed to do. After a while she started to feel better and she explained to me that she thought for a moment that my brother was using a real gun and that he had killed me, and that that thought triggered other horrible memories she had of the war in her country. I didn't know what to say other than I was really sorry and we both cried hugging each other. I am sure that this early experience in my life has a huge impact in my decision to become a psychologist and to work with refugees, immigrants and expats in the area of mental health and business relocation.
Immigration is a very complex mental process. The pathways our brain develops in our original cultures don't fit the reality of a new country. The way we used to behave are not acceptable anymore, our senses are challenged constantly. We have to adapt to a new environment, change the way we greet people, become aware to use or not touch, adapt to new smells and tastes, understand new political, social and economic rules, adjust into new work and education systems, speak a different language, and the list seems to be endless. All these points may be enormous stressors. It is exhausting. There are some people that are never able to adjust into a new culture. The process is individual and different for each person.
I believe that each and all of us play an important role in learning more and making a choosing to make a positive difference in the lives of our brothers and sisters who are immigrants, refugees or expats moving to our communities alone or with their families. Let's hear their stories, help with what we can, teach them what we know and learn a lot from them.
If you would like to know more about emotion in the immigration process, I would like to invite you to join me on a FREE webinar on November 7 at 1 pm USA Central Time. This webinar is part of the First National Immigration Summit that will take place in Los Angeles in January 2019. Please find more details about the webinar and register in the following link: