What will we talk about?
What kinds of questions should I ask? Will they tell me their “story?” What will we find to talk about? I’m always happy to hear thoughtful questions about how to have loving and respectful conversations with people who have survived trauma on the resettlement journey.
Remembering that the goal of our conversations is to build mutual, dignity-giving relationship, it is best to focus our questions and conversations on things that are happening in the present, rather than the past. While asking someone to share their story or to tell about their past may seem to you like a friendly way to get to know someone, it can cause anxiety, worry, mistrust, or even re-traumatization for the person being asked.
Someone who has survived trauma always needs to be in control of that information and feel free to share it only if/when they choose to do so. Some folks may at some point choose to share parts of their story within the context of a trusting relationship, while some may never choose to speak about it.
For cultural reasons of showing respect, some people will feel obligated to answer questions that are asked of them, but may feel very uncomfortable doing so. This can be damaging to the trust in the relationship, and can actually be detrimental to a survivor’s journey of healing.
For this reason, it’s best to focus on building connections and trust based on things you currently share, e.g. children of similar ages, interest in sports or music, updates on work or school, or shared faith. This also encourages our minds and hearts to shift from “us/them” thinking to “we’re all us.”
If your friend at any point chooses to speak to you about the painful parts of their journey, they will know that you are a caring, trusted listener who appreciates them for who they are and the strengths they offer.
Zinash Witsel, who resettled in Belgium, says in an article called “Show Your Love For Refugees, But Respect Their Privacy”:
Here are some other thoughts from friends who are resettling in the United States:
"I always feel lonely when someone asks me to tell what happened to me. It makes me wonder if they are only talking to me because they want to hear a story about suffering, not because they want to know me."
~A.L., arrived in the U.S. 6 years ago
"I wish people could understand that every time someone asks me to tell about the terrible things that happened to me, it takes me back to that time and I feel like I’m experiencing it all again."
~J.P., arrived in the U.S. 3.5 years ago
"When people hear my accent and see the way I dress, they seem to think that means they have a right to know everything about me. I am not comfortable talking about my past, but I feel like I have to tell them or they might think I am not grateful."
~S.N., arrived in the U.S. 5 years ago
"When somebody asks me personal questions I start to feel worried and scared because back home when I was questioned about who I was and where I came from, that could mean I was going to be taken away or hurt."
~P.R., arrived in the U.S. 6 months ago
"I feel a broken heart when I have to explain my identity."
-T.T., arrived in the U.s. 7 years ago
"Can’t people just like me for who I am, even if they don’t know my story?"
-M.M., arrived in the U.S. 1.5 years ago