'I Fled Iran at 8-Years-Old, This Is What Ukrainian Children Face'

In 1979, at 8-years-old, I left Iran in the midst of a full-fledged revolution. Strikes and demonstrations had paralyzed the country with protestors numbering in the millions. And violent government crackdowns had already resulted in the deaths and injury of hundreds of Iranians.

My family lived in Tehran, where the largest protests were taking place. The morning my mother, brothers, and I left for France—my father would stay behind to quickly shutter his trucking business—our house was in a frenzy. My mother came to my room rushing me to finish packing. I worried about how I would fit my favorite toys into the pink kid-sized bag, not realizing yet that I would never return to our home or to Iran.

Once done, I dragged the bag down the stairs. At the bottom, bulging suitcases lined up like toy soldiers. I stepped outside into the garden. It smelled of the sweet blooming pomegranate tree. Part of me wanted to slip off my shoes and walk out on the wet grass one last time before leaving.

Rebecca Morrison and Family Fled Iran
Rebecca Morrison (left) as a child. Morrison grew up in Tehran, Iran but she and her family fled the country in 1979 in the midst of the Iranian Revolution. Rebecca Morrison

On our car ride to the airport, going down Pahlavi Street, the main road stretching through downtown Tehran, the snow-topped Alborz mountains in the distance, I caught a whiff of the freshly roasted chestnuts and charcoal cooked corn on the cob street vendors were selling.

Watching the city fly by, I was unaware of the gravity of the political situation or the crucial decision my parents had made to keep us safe. I didn't know I was leaving behind an identity, a culture, and a home. Nor that the pictures of my childhood, my family's belongings, and keepsakes my grandmother had given my mother would all be destroyed when the government took our home.

My mother, brothers and I moved into my grandparents' apartment in Nice, France. A week after we arrived, my mother put me in school. I was completely at a loss for what the teacher and other students were saying. I remember vividly that first day, after laying out the lesson plan for the class, the teacher walked to my child-sized worn wooden desk, leaned in, her face close enough for me to smell the cigarettes on her breath, and tried to explain the lesson to me. No matter how slow she spoke, I couldn't quite figure out what I was supposed to do. My face reddened and my eyes filled with tears. Each day, the teacher and I performed a similar dance. Embarrassed, I didn't tell my family I was falling behind.

None of the other children spoke to me. Each day during recess in the gray gravel covered playground, the kids played kick ball as I watched and waited for the break to be over so I could go back into the classroom where my isolation wasn't so obvious.

Being at my grandparents' was a welcome respite from school. I had a few older cousins, all girls, who lived in apartments close by. They were the cool girls with make-up. They didn't see me as an equal but they allowed me to listen in on their gossip about boys and family drama. Those were the only times I felt normal.

While we were in France, my father was taken from our home to be interrogated by the revolutionary guard, but fortunately a former workman we knew who was now in the revolutionary guard came and vouched for him and ordered that he be let go. Shortly after his release, he managed to get out of the country. I knew none of this at the time, but noticed the immense relief with which my father was greeted when he arrived at the apartment.

We spent the next several years moving from city to city and country to country, trying to find a home. I went to numerous schools, many times not speaking the language, or fitting in, and continuously feeling isolated and disoriented.

Since February, I have watched as 12 million people have fled their homes in Ukraine because of the Russian invasion, with 5.6 million leaving for neighboring countries, and the remaining 6.5 million displaced within Ukraine itself. Millions of those are children; kids who might not go home for years. Research has shown that the effects of displacement on children can be ongoing and significant.

That was certainly the case for me.

As a "third culture kid"—a term coined by US sociologist Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s, for children who spend their formative years in places that are not their parents' homeland— I became accustomed to being "weird" and different, continuously meeting new people and adjusting to different cultural norms. When I was 12, we finally moved to Vancouver, Canada.

I started fifth grade in the middle of the school year. As I walked down the halls filled with students who had grown up together, I rehearsed things I might say if they spoke to me—but no one wanted to take a chance with the new immigrant kid. My home life was worse. My parents fought all the time, my mother struggling to fit into this foreign place and my father worried about how to support his family.

One day after school, instead of walking home, I walked into the school counselor's office. I didn't know what I would say, but I knew I needed someone to see me.

I sat there in front of him, nervously bouncing my leg, not knowing how to explain the dread I felt. Not knowing whether I should tell him that sometimes I think about ways to end my life. He was a patient, soft-spoken man in old corduroy pants with a salt-and-pepper beard. He asked simple questions and waited for me to tell him small bits about my life. I didn't reveal all of my thoughts, but apparently I said enough that he called my mother after I left.

My mother and I didn't talk about it until that night. Sitting on the edge of her bathtub, I watched her go through her face cleansing routine. That's when she asked me what was going on. I tried to explain my pain. She tried to understand. The conversation didn't fix my home life, or my feelings of isolation at school, but it was a start.

The psychological effects of displacement on children has been described as debilitating and long lasting, and these can be exacerbated over time by issues such as language barriers and discrimination. Approximately a quarter of refugee children in one study suffered from loneliness and depression, while close to a third has PTSD. These symptoms typically go hand in hand with academic setbacks, behavioral difficulties and attachment problems.

My experience is very different from the Ukrainian children who have had to flee from war at a moment's notice while seeing their country being decimated—whose fathers must remain behind to fight. My family was lucky in many ways. We were able to leave Iran safely and find our way to a new homeland. We had family waiting for us, we had resources. But I do understand what it's like to be a child wrenched from the only home you've ever known, left struggling to understand why.

I understand what it's like to have parents who are consumed with sadness and dread not knowing what their new life will entail and or how best to care for their children as they struggle to survive themselves. And I know how it feels to live with the deep scars made by the fear, isolation, and grief of fleeing your home.

Rebecca Morrison and Family Fled Iran
Rebecca Morrison explains that watching Ukrainian children forced to flee Ukraine remind her of her own experience leaving Iran at the age of 8. Rebecca Morrison

We will get used to this war and the horrific images we see of a country being destroyed and a people being forcibly displaced. We always do. But what many around the world will never know is the heavy burden the families of this war and their children will carry for the rest of their lives. Weeks, months, and years from now, when they settle into their new homes and try to achieve some normalcy, whatever that may look like, they will still carry the consequences of their displacement.

But we all have an opportunity to lessen those scars. We can welcome refugee children into our communities, into our homes, and into our schools with kindness and an understanding of their struggles. Even the smallest gesture of inclusion and warmth will help them feel less alone as they adjust to their new home and will soften the devastation they've experienced leaving their country.

Rebecca Morrison is a mom, a lawyer, a writer and a painter. You can find out more about her at rebeccakmorrison.com.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

If you have thoughts of suicide, confidential help is available for free at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 1-800-273-8255. The line is available 24 hours every day.

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