Refugee Identity: dreaming new roots for the self

A dream of meeting God reveals much about the roots of identity in a precarious world.

Refugees call identity into question. Fleeing home, they have to leave behind the familiar society that confirms their identity. After all, the self is not a thing, but a social process. You can’t drop off your self for an oil change. Recognition by others, even a simple exchange of “Hellos,” mutually substantiates identity. In an adoptive country, refugees can be strangers, perhaps suspicious or sinister. They may feel abandoned, and remind others of the threat of isolation or even social death.  Without trying, that is, refugees can get you thinking about identity.

I’m reminded of a workshop I offered in 1993, at a grammar school in Kazakhstan, in Central Asia. Rimmed by the Tien Shan mountains across the border in China, Taldy Korgan had a functional look rathe than a distinctive personality. Instead of a jungle gym, the playground of the the brick elementary school had an old Soviet fighter jet.  Otherwise the school could have been in Abilene Kansas. The USSR had come apart, the Cold War was over, and the first Peace Corps volunteers were helping with language programs in newly independent countries such as Kazakhstan.

Stalin had exiled many Russians to Kazakhstan, and their descendants thought of themselves as Kazakhstanis. As managers, they kept institutions running. The country was mostly Russian-speaking, but parliament had passed a law specifying that to hold onto your job, you had to speak Kazakh—which only 40% of citizens spoke. The idea was to affirm Kazakh identity, but also to redistribute jobs and power to native Kazakhs. Not surprisingly, there was a subtle rumble of panic among Russian-speaking folks who suddenly could see themselves as unemployed refugees.

The workshop participants were two dozen teachers of English, mostly women in the 40s, two-thirds of them native Kazakhs. Some of the Kazakh women had Central Asian features, but at first glance the group was a blend.

To start, I invited them to tell us about any sort of problem they’d encountered lately. At first they were tongue-tied.  Gradually, one after another they talked cautiously about students, teaching, and caring for their own families. But then a blonde woman I’ll call Tatiana spoke up and sent a ripple of concern through the room.

“My problem,” said Tatiana half-jokingly, “is that in a dream I met the Christ.” When I coaxed out some details, she said that her messiah was a handsome Russian-looking young man, and when she asked if he was truly “the God,” he had assured her he was the real thing. When she told her husband about the dream, Tatiana said wryly, “He told me I was crazy.”

Everyone chuckled at this wink of domestic comedy and reality-testing. The sensible, motherly blonde Tatiana was not about to enlist in a holy war. Traditionally, Kazakhs are animists, though in the 1990s Islam was beginning to catch on. Officially, Soviet Russians were atheists, but since the USSR about 2/3 have gone back their Russian Orthodox roots.

In the course of a delicate conversation, Tatiana reported that she was aware that her family were Tatars from Russia.  Granddad had been an exiled Communist official, and that she feared her own family would soon be refugees.

Instead of talking about the “truth” of a religion, we focused the work Tatiana’s dream was doing for her. The Kazakhs’ new law had everyone on edge. Turmoil in Yeltsin’s Moscow made Russia uninviting. Germany was repatriating Germans whose families had migrated to Catherine the Great’s Russia in the 18th century, and many had recently queued at the German embassy to get visas and exit. Although ghastly massacres in the Balkans were yet to come, in 1993 the threat of ethnic cleansing was in the air.  It was impossible to tell if people knew about, or wanted to think about, Stalin’s sickening purges in the 1930s. [1]

One function of Tatiana’s dream was to reassure herself that Russia would welcome her family. Her messiah seemed to be encouraging her to identify with Christian Russia if the cultural crash in Kazakhstan forced her out. One woman reminded us that religions often offer stories of deliverance. The Kazakh teachers were sympathetic, but mostly by denying that the new law—and any of them—might hurt their colleagues.

The current widespread refugee crisis makes Tatiana’s dream especially relevant. She was envisioning a savior who could welcome her family into a Russia where nobody knew them and they had no support network. Terror Management Theory (TMT) can deepen this interpretation because experiments show that anxiety about death stimulates attachment to immortality symbols such as a flag or the cross. [2] For Tatiana, Russia meant social death: a world in which nobody knows you and the social foundation of your identity is lost. [3]

Existential psychology can extend this insight further. Again: the self is not a thing but a sociocultural process. A social ritual asking “How are you?” poses a question but also affirms the reality of the participants. In sleep, by contrast, the waking self becomes unrecognizable or vanishes. As a result, the self is always potentially ephemeral,  and this is a source of conscious or unconscious anxiety. It was in the shiver of fear in the air when one of the Russians” gulped: “I don’t know anyone there [in Russia].”

Insecurity about status in society is partly uneasiness about the permanence of the self. By analogy, the self is always potentially a refugee, and refugees remind us that if you lose your social identity, you can suffer social death. In turn, as TMT predicts, people exposed to “mortality salience” are likely to fear strangers for their association with death.

However much we wish for autonomy, we are social animals. We take form out of the genetic and psychic stuff of other people. But in periods when the scale and pace of life rapidly change, self-esteem comes under pressure, with new anxiety, aggression, and aspirations to manage as a result. Tatiana faced a challenging future, yet it’s possible that she used the workshop and her dream as a way of speaking her mind to her colleagues and relieving her isolation.

Some of the teachers—the potential refugees—came to the airport to see us off. A woman who had shown her interest during the workshop was plainly moved. I couldn’t be sure if the conversation had made her more aware of the way the old USSR had made the school a means of intimidation and social control. But I was touched when she hugged me and said: “This was the first time in all these years of working together that we teachers spoke to each other.” There were tears in her eyes.

  1. Don’t miss Nikita Mikhailkov and Rustam Ibragimbekov’s moving film Burnt by the Sun (1994), which begins like a Chekhov weekend in the country but slowly reveals Stalin’s terror.
  2. See Sheldon Solomon et al, The Worm at the Core (2015) and the Ernest Becker Foundation:
  3. I take the term “social death” from Orlando Patterson (Slavery and Social Death).

Resources used in this essay:

Zygmunt Bauman, Strangers at the Door (2015)                                                            Kirby Farrell, Post-Traumatic Culture (1998)                                                                Sheldon Solomon et al, The Worm at the Core (2015)                                                   Irvin Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy (1980).


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