The telling: hurt or hope?
With a solemn face, she told of threats, kidnappings, rapes, and physical beatings, as if this was not her story. Then suddenly, the words caught up with her and then there were no more words. There were tears, but no more words. There was anger rushing through her body and emotions she could no longer contain, but no more words. The words hurt too much. It was not evident to her in that moment, but the words she had spoken carried not only the weight of her hurt, but also the power to open up a pathway to protection from this hurt for herself and her entire family in the days ahead.
Before an immigration official, I watched from the seat beside him as details that had never been disclosed before came out of his mouth. He had lived under the weight of shame and had neglected to tell me about his abuse before, but here he was speaking those words into open for the first time. With each word he spoke, doors were opened for him- doors of freedom from his shame, and doors to a place of refuge from the abuse.
She was the first of her siblings to speak, and bravely told me of her fears. Then she began to write, no detail was to be left behind, no thought unwritten. By the end of our meeting I held the yellow, lined, pages in my hand filled with her story of the fear that motivated her to traverse countless miles to safety. As she gave me her story, she was filled with pride and hope, for even though the contents of her utterances and pages were filled with memories of fear, she knew that making them known could mean she no longer had to fear.
From the day I met him and he first began to give me little bits and pieces of his story, his face would always be turned away, his voice always at such a low volume that it was almost inaudible, and he would turn to his sister to provide as many details of the story as possible whenever he could. Over the length of our time together, he was able to articulate his story and practice for an interview, but each moment of speaking was a moment that the pain could be seen etched on his faith. Then came the time to tell his story to an immigration official. I was shocked. This client told his story with a strength and eloquence that I had never seen in him. That day, which I had dreaded on his behalf, where he would once again need to dredge up words to tell his story, became a day of victory and triumph as he was no longer a timid and fearful child, but a young man ready to boldly tell his story without fear.
Each of my clients, no matter how young or fragile, no matter the hurt or fearful, must tell their story. This telling is a part of their journey with the immigration system that cannot be escaped. It is by telling their story to me as their attorney, that I am able to know which form of immigration relief is appropriate for them and to pursue it. It is by telling their story to immigration officials that protection can be granted.
But this telling is not a light thing for any of my clients. All of my clients, in one way or another, have suffered great traumas in their life, whether it was threats to self or family, abuse-physical, sexual, or emotional-, lack of care from a parental figure, or a long treacherous journey to the U.S. Each of these individuals has had to learn how to handle their trauma without the aid of mental health services of any kind.
Telling their story is a muti-faceted experience that can produce a variety of results for the client on a personal level. Telling their story often re-traumatizes a client by forcing them to re-live harrowing events, often at a time before they may be emotionally ready. We do everything we can as attorneys to empower the clients, to ease the process, and to avoid re-traumatizing the client, but the immigration process is not always so accommodating and in order for protection to be achieved, a story must be told, regardless of the client’s emotional readiness.
On the flip-side, telling their story can also allow a client to feel empowered, hopeful, and that their pain has not been in vain. When a client tells their story, it can allow them to feel like they are the ones in control, like they are actively participating in a process to bring about change in their situations. It reminds them that they have not lost all power because of what has happened to them. As some of my clients tell their stories, now living far from the sources of their abuse and fear, they breathe a sigh of relief and know that the trauma that was once a part of their life is no longer their reality, and that allows them to begin the healing process.
For all of my clients, their stories are a tool used to achieve immigration protection of some sort or another for themselves, and sometimes for their families. This allows the clients to know that their story is not just something that happened to them, but it is something they have to offer, something that will provide a path to protection. Each of these aspects allows for healing through the telling.
Not every client has experienced this healing. Every client carries with them these heavy stories and experiences. Each client, without fail, has shown bravery beyond anything that has ever been required in my own life by telling their stories. I am proud beyond what words can expressed to have had the chance to be a witness to such bravery in “The Telling.”