Therapy as existential refuge: Addressing homelessness and anger in working with Ukrainian refugees
First published in the Hermeneutic Circular in October 2022.
I began to volunteer in March of this year as a refugee counsellor when sixty-five Ukrainians arrived by bus to our local town in France, most of them mothers with children. Among others, I worked with one 19-year-old, Asya, who left Ukraine with her mother, aunt and two-year-old son, Pasha (all names and identifying details have been changed and Aysa gave her permission to explore her story in depth for publication.)
On the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Asya decided to find herself a therapist in her hometown, Kharkiv. ‘Literally, the night before: can you believe it? I feel silly even thinking about it now: I was on the verge of changing my life and now look where I am.’ It was a lottery at the Polish border, she told me. ‘There was a bus going to France, and we really had no idea what to expect. Maybe this is fate? Maybe I was meant to come here and meet you?’
Sud’ba (fate) and its antithesis, ne sud’ba – which translates as ‘it’s not meant to be’ – are terms you hear constantly in the Russian language. The determinism they reflect has always equally fascinated and frustrated me: be it magical thinking around the good things that happen, or a doleful acceptance of the bad, there is an underlying rejection of free will that is decidedly anti-existential. Suffering is a weight to bear; the world one is born into cannot be changed.
This way of thinking has come up frequently in my work with Ukrainians. Sartre’s maxim – ‘man is condemned to be free’ – is turned on its head.
‘Why did you want to have therapy?’ I asked Asya that day, returning her to her own sense of choice. ‘I wanted to move on,’ she said. ‘I wanted to work out how to do that. I wanted my son to have a better start in life than I did.’
‘What do you want from therapy now?’
‘The same,’ she said calmly.
Escaping the past
What Asya wanted to move on from was a life of hardship, and of physical and emotional trauma. She told me of the husband who had abused her. Of how she used to lock herself and Pasha in the bathroom. She told me she had found the courage to leave six months previously.
She was 17 when she got pregnant. Her own mother had been 17, too. She told me of her mother’s drinking and of how, after the war broke out, her mother had gone on a 48-hour binge to avoid leaving Ukraine.
Asya had never been in therapy. I marvelled, in that first session, at how easy it was for her to share her story, and how emotionless she was when she spoke.
We regularly worked through her nightmares and flashbacks, and the constant fear she had that her husband would somehow get out of Ukraine and come in search of her.
‘He’s twenty: he can’t leave,’ I reminded her several times. (Under current law in Ukraine, men aged 18 and older cannot leave the country.) ‘You’re safe here.’
‘I dreamt last night that he did get out,’ she said in our third session. ‘Another bus arrived from Poland; he was on it. I don’t know why I have these nightmares. I’m finally safe. I didn’t feel safe there, even before.’
When Asya left her husband, she went back to the home she grew up in: a tiny two-bedroom apartment she shared at one point with two aunts, four uncles and her mother and grandmother, the latter both alcoholics. ‘We were always poor,’ she told me, apologetically. ‘Very poor.’
I was transported in my mind to the Soviet interiors I know so well. A smell of fried fish. Dark, wallpapered walls. A single tap that swivels from bath to sink. Through the window: Khrushchev high-rises to the horizon, garages of corrugated metal. A playground too rusted to play on.
‘When I got pregnant,’ Asya said, ‘I moved out, because my husband couldn’t move in. We lived with his mother for a while, then we lived in his grandmother’s old flat. What I dream of is owning my own home. I want a home for me and Pasha.’
Therapy as home-away-from-home
Working with refugees, I have reflected a lot on the meaning of home. Home is far more than a room, a building, a street, a town; and far more, too, than the people, the familiarity and memories contained within those structures. It is the language we have spoken from birth; the culture we know inside out; the relational rules we abide by. It is ways of being and doing that hold us within societal norms, so that we are a part of and not outside.
Heidegger, in his 1951 essay ‘Building Dwelling Thinking,’ explores the meaning of our being and dwelling in the world. The German ich bin is connected to the old word bauen (to dwell): being and dwelling are ‘the way in which you are and I am, the manner in which we humans are on the earth.’ Bauen also means ‘to cherish and protect, to preserve and care for,’ both in terms of how we treat the earth we build on (Heidegger would despair at today’s environmental crisis) and how we treat each other.
As an aside: only six years previously Heidegger was banned from teaching due, among other charges, to his engagement with Nazi propaganda. I cannot reference Heidegger here without observing the brutal irony in the fact that Putin’s propaganda about Nazism in Ukraine has fuelled the war that exiled Asya. Moreover, Heidegger’s fall from grace and his experience of internal exile, during which he apparently attempted suicide, foreshadow his emphasis on harmony and peace in ‘Building Dwelling Thinking.’ I read this article as a form of remorse, a desire to forget, and a call to a new way of being. ‘By a primal oneness the four – earth and sky, divinities and mortals – belong together in one,’ he writes. ‘To dwell, to be set at peace, means to remain at peace within the free sphere that safeguards each thing in its nature.’
Being homeless, not at peace, unprotected: none of these are experiences unique to refugees. Asya knew groundlessness and unsafety long before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She had never been cherished or cared for; she did not have a place to call home.
But fleeing a physical enemy, the refugee is thrown into an absolute state of insecurity and not-belonging. For Asya, the resultant pressure has been threefold: homeless herself, she is traveling with a mother she is at war with while striving to create a sense of home for her own son.
All the existential givens bombard her at once: isolation (alienated within her own family, unable to express herself in French), meaninglessness (no possibility of continuing her studies), death (survival fears for herself and Pasha, and for those left behind in Ukraine) and freedom (circumstances have deprived her of choice).
In our sessions and between them, Asya has frequently felt on the verge of emotional collapse. My position has been one of weekly nurture: for 50 minutes, I make space for her, listen to her, encourage her to go deeper in her search for courage and hope. There have been times when this has not felt enough, but what defines every session is Asya’s trust in me and my own unconditional regard for her. Therapy has become an emotional home-away-from-home.
The family system
Asya, her mother Dasha, aunt Marina and son Pasha were initially housed together in a small one-room apartment. Within this space, tensions often ran high. During the initial assessment, I met both aunt and mother individually. Those meetings were helpful in two ways: to humanise the ‘bad mother’ that Asya so frequently described to me; and to fill out the relational map of Asya’s life.
A systemic awareness has been invaluable in my work with the refugees in general. Family looms large, both as internal objects, and because they are often displaced as a unit. This both aids and thwarts their ability to adapt.
When I assessed her, Dasha told me she did not believe in therapy: life had always been hard; she did not need to talk about it. Asya’s father had left while she was still pregnant, she said; she had always worked two jobs just to survive.
She adored her grandson. She was thirty-six, and she said sometimes she looked at the way Asya parented and it frightened her. Asya got angry with Pasha; she let him watch cartoons for hours.
‘I hate my mother,’ Asya said in our fifth session, looking decidedly agitated. ‘She got drunk last night again. She said she wished she’d never had me. I told her: why did you have me if you had nothing to give me? She never did anything developmental like read to me or play with me. The moment men appeared in her life again, she was done with me. I was four!’
‘I’m so sorry, Asya,’ I said.
‘She’s damaged me. She’s infected me with her anger. I don’t want Pasha to feel my anger.’
‘What happens when you get angry?’
‘I’d never hit Pasha, but I yell at him. I don’t want to yell at him. I feel like I need to get away from him. I love him so much. It’s all so unfair.’
I said I wondered if the anger wasn’t about Pasha.
‘No, it’s not. I’m angry with her: she never cared for me. The only people who did care she pushed away. I think about her first boyfriend often. She wouldn’t leave him alone when he drank. Why couldn’t she just let him be?’
Asya’s aunt, Marina, in contrast to Dasha, represented ‘the good mother’ in Asya’s emotional world. ‘When I’m tired, she takes Pasha. She keeps Mama under control, too, calms her down when she loses it.’
When I assessed Marina, she opened up to me easily, though she refused the offer of therapy, too. She said her purpose in life was to protect her family. She adored Asya and Pasha and said she would always be there for them.
Pasha was her angel, she said. She had raised her youngest brothers single-handedly, because their mother had always been drunk. ‘I’m not bringing another child into this world,’ she said firmly.
When one of those younger brothers (Asya’s uncle) was wounded on the front, the grandmother came up in Asya’s therapy, too. ‘We don’t know how to tell her,’ Asya said, showing me shocking pictures of her uncle’s head injury. ‘They don’t know if he’ll properly recover. He’s her favourite. She hates her daughters. She’s been angry and drunk all her life.’
From mother to child
Well into our third month of working together, Asya railed against her mother more violently than she had done before. ‘What purpose does hating her serve you?’ I asked.
For the first time, she seemed judged by me. ‘I want her to be sorry!’ She was silent for a while. ‘She never will be. It’s pathetic.’
‘Expecting anything of her.’
‘Because she always disappoints.’ She began to cry. She cried a lot in that session and the crying felt important: I thought back to the deadpan Asya I met on day one, and how far we had come.
‘I want to hate her, but I still love her. When I donated my eggs to raise money to buy things for Pasha, I bought Mum the perfume she had always dreamt of. She was so happy. I wish I could make her happy like that always.’
I felt an enormous sense of sadness in that moment: to give to her own child, Asya had been through the painful process of donating eggs. Another life might be born, inaccessible this time to both Asya and her mother, and briefly they had connected through a present bought with the proceeds of that transaction.
I told Asya I was moved that she loved her mother despite everything. I wondered if she could tell me what it felt like: to love while not wanting to love.
What came out were more tears.
‘I don’t know your mother very well,’ I said. ‘I’ve only met her once. You haven’t told me much about her life.’
There was a long tirade of blame: her mother had made bad choices; she had got pregnant with a bad man who had ended up in prison. She had been raped while drunk and never got over it, because she had not tried to get over it. She had kept on drinking to cover up the shame. She had been a dreadful mother to Asya because of this.
‘It’s not fair at all that you had that childhood,’ I said.
She shrugged. ‘It’s sad.’
‘Her life,’ she said, and I felt something shift: a sense that blaming her mother might not be the solution. ‘It’s better that we’re here now, isn’t it? It’s better for Pasha. We’re safe here and when I talk to you, I feel hopeful.’
Anger and courage in survival
In reflecting on this story, I have thought a lot about my own position of privilege, and the sense of both otherness and connectedness I experience with Asya. We come from different worlds and, today, we exist in different worlds. Asya is a single mother without university education or French language, dependent entirely on pathetic state benefits, while I have a supportive husband and am finishing my third degree while working in a job that I love.
I have thought, too, about the repetition of experience, from generation to generation. There are some similarities between Asya’s story and my own. I have been exploring these realisations with my therapist.
My mother grew up in working class Wales and was nineteen when she first got pregnant. A big difference was that she was sent away to have the baby in a maternity home in Brixton, then forced to give him up for adoption.
The courage both Asya and her mother had to find in raising children with so few resources at such a young age is something I have marvelled at. The courage Asya continues to show in her determination to do things differently I have also marvelled at.
For most of my teenaged years, I hated my mother: this is a big similarity between me and Asya. My mother often told me she wished she had never had me. Anger was her defence: the way she protected herself from her own sadness and self-loathing. Anger was something I stigmatised for years and was afraid of in myself. It is something I have learned to express and soothe like a wound.
A big difference between me and Asya is that I did not have therapy until my early thirties. By then, my mother had already been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, gone on medication, become the mother she would have been far earlier had life been kinder to her. She was also dying of terminal cancer.
I began to see her experiences from her perspective; I began to appreciate her life-long courage. Ultimately, seeing her in this way has been a major part of my own healing.
As the war in Ukraine continues, so does my therapy with Asya. This work has made me question how we see and receive anger: the way we run from it and stigmatise it, particularly in women. For refugees, I have found that anger so often comes hand in hand with courage, as the individuals I support both rage and fight to survive in impossibly hard and tragic circumstances.