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.
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.
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?