What Would You Do?

A few years ago when I worked as a psychologist I encountered a case where a little girl had been sent along with a group of other refugees from somewhere in Africa to Finland. She was just a tiny little girl, and traveled without her mother. That is a long and dangerous trip for anyone to take, and much more so for a toddler.

Later, the mother joined her daughter in Finland using the family reunification law. One of the other psychologists in my team said: “To send a toddler such a long way, with practical strangers to look after her! How can anyone do that? I would never do that.”

Well, I would never do that either. I have two small children and I wouldn’t dream of letting anyone with whom I am not thoroughly familiar take my kids anywhere, let alone to an unknown fate to the other side of the world. But then… I wouldn’t know.

I wouldn’t know what it is like to live in a country where life is cheap and violence is a normal part of everyday life. I wouldn’t know what it feels like not having enough to feed your kids properly. I wouldn’t know what it is like to watch your relatives and neighbors die. I wouldn’t know what it is like to raise a girl in a country where rape is prevalent.

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I wouldn’t know how to make the choice between saving up an enormous sum of money and then sending your daughter to safety, or waiting until you have managed to scrape up another enormous sum to send you both to safety. All the while aware that by waiting you are taking the chance that it might be too late for one or both of you.

These days here in the West we know how children react to separation and traumatic events. We haven’t always known it. The understanding of this issue only started to increase around the 1950s. Throughout the times, mothers have felt instinctively that children should be kept close, but no one really knew how detrimental separation could be before Bowlby formulated his attachment theory.

People didn’t create orphanages with the intention of being cruel. People of that time genuinely believed that being fed and kept at least relatively warm and safe was good enough. No one knew before the horrible experiments unwittingly performed in Romanian orphanages what a devastating effect lack of love can have on a human being.

So how would an African mother, with barely any education, raised in a culture where the focus is on the child being raised by the whole village instead of the tight-knit nuclear family, how can she be expected to consider her child’s emotional needs as we perceive of them? And even if she could, surely physical well-being must take precedence. It must be better to be alive and sad, rather than dead. Wouldn’t any mother come to the same conclusion?

I don’t know what went through this mother’s head when she did what she did. It is possible that she acted callously, ignoring the needs of her child, using the child as her ticket out of Hell. That is possible. But I wouldn’t make any judgments on her before I knew all the facts. I would remember that she comes from a world that we would struggle to understand, with different laws and different customs.

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Understanding is not the same as condoning. I don’t think any toddler should undergo what this toddler did. Thinking of my children going through something like this breaks my heart. Maybe it broke this mother’s heart, too. But sometimes people are made to choose between two incredibly bad options. Would you know which is the best choice?

So I wouldn’t know what it feels like to put your child in a car and say: “I will come for you later.” I wouldn’t know what it is like to make the choice between having your child in your arms in the middle of a war zone and sending her alone to a place where you think she might have a better chance at a long and happy life.

I wouldn’t know. Would you?

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29 thoughts on “What Would You Do?

  1. ThIs is an awesome post Laura, very thought provoking. It asks a lot of questions that most people probably don’t stop to consider. Hope you don’t mind but I’m going to share this everywhere I can!

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  2. It’s never a good idea to leave a child in the hands of someone you are not familiar with. One of my cousins who found herself in such a devastating situation lives to tell the story. It was never a good one to hear. the kind of maltreatment and torture she received from the ones who took her in was a appalling one. And one thing that struck me is the way this family presented themselves in such a good platform that you will never suspect that they could perpetuate such evil, but we never knew that they were wolves in sheep’s clothing. like you said, Let’s not be too quick to judge, you never can tell the other side of the story unless you have been there. I hate torture especially when it comes to the lest privileged ones. my desire is that one day i will be able to empower such kind of people and give them better lives to live. This is a wonderful post Laura. It touches my heart. keep it up.
    Love and blessings.

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    1. It’s unfathomable how people can do things like that to anyone, let alone little children. This is exactly what I’m saying. People are made to choose between two evils, with no way of knowing beforehand which is the lesser evil.

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  3. For me I would send my child even as my heart was breaking into a thousand pieces. My purpose as a mother isn’t about my happiness. It is about the safety, happiness and welfare of my child. To live in a place where danger was a contrast threat, what amount of hope would my child have? Sending her with strangers who were also refugees and understood the sacrifice because there was a good chance they to had make a similar sacrifice, is better than almost certain death or trauma from war. Maybe they had left their children behind or a spouse or parents, they would know what it meant to send her. If it meant a chance at safety, a chance of happiness and a chance of a future I would send her as my heart was breaking but I would see her as a beacon of hope.

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    1. You’re right. A mother always needs to think of her child’s welfare first. Even when it is heartbreaking. Luckily we don’t have to decide.

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  4. I would send her as my heart was breaking into a 1,000 pieces. My happiness is not my purpose as a mother. My purpose is the safety, happiness and welfare of my child. If sending her with refugees who understood the sacrifice I was making, because it’s very likely they too were making a heart breaking sacrifice by leaving behind loved ones gave her a chance of a life away from war and strife, I would do it even as my heart was breaking. I would see her as a beacon of hope.

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  5. I’m glad you write that you don’t judge this mother. We can never know what her situation was like. I was wondering about your statement that the mother-child dyad being less tight in that culture. What is that based on? Just curious!

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    1. I didn’t mean less tight in the sense that it would somehow be inferior. I meant that in our culture children are often very exclusively raised by the mother, whereas in African cultures the family is a much wider concept. It’s obviously not always like this, but the norm in the West is towards the “nuclear family” as the place where children grow up and in Africa the family that takes part in raising a child may include a lot more people. This means that the children might grow up with more attachment figures than in the West. Which might be a good thing. I agree, this might have been a poor choice of words to describe what I meant.

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  6. Thought provoking post. Here is my thought that it provoked. 🙂 I had to give my two children to a neighbor so they could be taken to safety while I attempted to save our house from a wildfire. It was difficult, and the memory still sticks with the older of the two. But that house was the only home they had known at the time. If it burned to the ground, would they have been any less traumatized? These are the types of thoughts that go in to such decisions. You tell yourself you are doing the right thing and then hope for the best. Being judged by others wasn’t even part of the equation.

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    1. I would’ve probably done the same. Although I guess you can never say how you’ll act in an emergency like that. It’ll be instinct first, I suppose.

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  7. Hi, Laura. 🙂
    I followed BigErik to this post today and was delighted with it because of how skillfully you present another perspective.
    As you may know, we had a final assignment for Blogging 101, which was to create a regular feature post. This made me pout at first, but now I am very excited about it because you have inspired what I think is a wunnerful idea:
    With your permission, I would like to make this post the very first in a series of referrals to works that help provide insights or solutions toward a better world. What do you say?

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  8. nice piece @Laura.. i also can’t imagine why she did that in the first place.. but since they are refugees, she might have thought that it will be best for her daughter rather than see her die because of prolonged starvation, i don’t know, just a wild guess..

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    1. That’s just what I wanted to say, that she probably just tried to do what she thought would be best for her child under terrible circumstances and with nothing but terrible choices to choose from.

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  9. It is probably the hardest choice in the world and you have put all of it into context. I would probably want to save my child but then there is that part of me that wouldn’t want to give her up. Life is not easy and for some it is unbearable.

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  10. I love your insight. We can never judge the mothers who have to make such a horrible decision. I’m glad in this instance she seemed to have made the right choice.

    Liked by 1 person

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