Two weeks ago, I read the article “Displaced Diplomats Caught Between Two Worlds” (Washington Post, March 3, 2011) and I had an immediate, visceral reaction of panic: butterflies in my stomach, disorientation and sadness. It amazed me that I could have this response after 32 years – the time I was evacuated from Islamabad, Pakistan on November 21, 1979!
At that time, I was 16 years old, in love for the first time and relishing my overseas high school experience when I was suddenly told, during a family vacation and on a train to visit Mohenjadaro, that we were being re-routed to Karachi because the American Embassy of Islamabad had been “sacked”. There was rioting in the streets, the killing of a young American marine guard and a large fire forcing embassy personnel into their secure vault, with a raging fire impending. This all occurred during the turmoil around the Iran-hostage crisis. We were all terrified, disoriented and unsure of what the future held. We were immediately evacuated with other Americans and landed in Arlington, Virginia, very much like those families in the article.
I have never returned to my Pakistan home, never said “good-bye” to my local friends and was never able to bring closure to this experience. This experience, like many of my peers at the time, had lifelong effects, some large, some small. There were many families that suffered in great ways, including suicides, drug/alcohol/prescription drug addictions, divorce and other mental health issues.
Like these children in the article, my brothers and I were immediately registered in a local public high school in Bethesda, Maryland and thrown into a situation in which I never felt connection or a sense of belonging, never felt understood and always felt so “different” than everyone else, despite my blond hair and blue eyes. My internal grief was great but I was also numb, going through the motions but not feeling anything – a true reaction to trauma.
There was no support for families, back then, and no sense of the trauma that all families went through in dislocating them from their homes, lifestyle and support network. This experience lead me into the field of Clinical Social work and my desire to help people deal with all kinds of adjustment issues. I have been working as couple and family therapist since 1992 and love the work I do in helping couples and families strengthen resilience and nurture secure attachments.
Times have changed a lot since that time 30 years ago – if anything it seems like the world is a less stable, less safe place for Americans living abroad. I can only imagine that there will be more and more times when Americans are evacuated and dislocated. I hope that the State Department and any other organization that is in a position of having to evacuate personnel, will consider the dramatic and traumatic impact this has on families and children and provide a network of support to help them through – this is vital and necessary in order to process current stress reactions and to prevent future difficulties in living.
As I think about these families and children, my heart goes out to them and I feel their bewilderment, frustration, fear and sadness about their change of circumstances and grief over lost experiences. I hope that they are all able to go back to their lives soon and continue out their high school experience in their respective overseas homes.
TO THE EDITOR:
Can you please pass along my information below to whomever you might have contacted at the apartment complex or let me know whom I can contact.
Marie Caterini Choppin, LCSW-C
Silver Spring and Bethesda, Maryland Office
I would like to offer my services to these families who have arrived recently under these circumstances by providing a support group for the adolescents and families and a safe place to process their experience, their feelings of disorientation, anger and despair. If anyone is in need of a place to talk with someone who has lived the experience, please have them contact me at 301-625-9102 or visit my website at www.CounselingForContentment.com.
Marie Caterini Choppin, LCSW-C