The third tier of American psychologist Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the one above the requirement for physical survival and for security, is the need to belong
Refugees fleeing a hostile regime may endure unspeakable horror, very great physical suffering and profound trauma as almost every aspect of their past life is lost
Assuming they reach a safe place, the need to be part of a group, to be accepted and loved, may also be denied them
In the first world most of us take our sense of belonging for granted. Everything that surrounds us is familiar to the point of being invisible. The street where we live, the trees on it that change with comforting regularly according to season, the smell of the exhaust fumes from our neighbour’s irritatingly revving car. Our brains are constantly fed the message, “you know where you are, you know what this is, you are safe.”
Imagine the exhaustion that is a consequence of interacting with an unalteringly alien environment. The human brain is on constant red alert. The message now is “Watch out, you don’t know what this is, you don’t where you are, be careful, don’t let your guard down.” Add to that the physical and mental exhaustion of escape, hardship and dislocation and recovery may be a long time in coming.
I will never forget the look on the faces of the Syrian refugees who arrived in Berlin to be met by applause from the welcoming Germans. It is impossible not to weep when you see their smiles at the warmth of the reception at that time. Welcome means safety. The smiles and the handshakes show their relief and their gratitude.
There is a connection between being welcomed and feeling safe. A host must always greet his guest with enthusiasm, whether he feels it or not. As the visitor pauses on the threshold he or she will feel vulnerable entering another’s territory. It’s natural that we do. The warmth of the welcome diffuses that primal apprehension.
When I was a teenager I visited a friend’s house in Birmingham for the first time. Her father was an old Irish surgeon and as he shook my hand he looked me in the eye and said “My dear, you are very welcome in this house.” That was about forty years ago but I still remember the relief and relaxation that washed through me at his greeting.
All that was happening was that I was being attended to with kindness. That is all. That is everything
Throughout our lives being paid attention to will mean the difference between survival and extinction, happiness and misery, achievement and failure. A victim of torture is reduced to state of nothingness by the complete control the perpetrator has over him. That annihilation of self is the most extreme example of not being seen, not mattering at all.
Most forms of therapeutic counselling work on the basis that the patient is listened to, properly and with intelligence and compassion. That is where the healing comes from.
Because being seen is fundamental to our survival, when we are not taken into account we will experience a profound reaction. A baby will scream when hungry, a man or woman or woman will rage when they are ignored. A baby’s hunger is something we all understand and will respond to, an adult’s anger and hurt at counting for nothing is something we don’t always recognise.
Refuge means safety. For people whose lives have been taken away, recovery from trauma may begin when their basic needs are met and continue when they no longer feel in danger. The next tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy, belonging, can be achieved by notice, by caring, in whatever form that might take.
Amnesty International encourages and organises correspondence with governments who are refusing their citizens basic human rights. But they also ask people to write to those who have been interned without trial or solely on account of their beliefs, to let them know they are cared for and to reassure them that they have not been forgotten. They are not alone. They matter.
It’s only a small thing, it is almost nothing compared to what they have been through and will go through, but that’s what we can all do, we can attend. We can positively search out opportunities to help or make some kind of financial contribution, send some clothes, write a letter. We all have the means to reach people whose lives have been smashed to pieces and who are beginning the process of creating an entirely new existence.
Small drops of caring can come together to form an ocean of compassion. Being cared about makes people feel a little safer
At the top of their website Unicef ask for a small donation.
“Ten pounds could help provide toys for our child-friendly spaces which every day help children rest, recover and play, as children should”.
Every life matters, every person deserves notice, but none more so than those who’ve lost all that they once had. Each of us, in whichever small way, can reach out to them