Escaping Prison of the Mind

Published on:

February 2, 2022

It was early spring in Boston, a time of hope and renewal for many. Yet to the three Haitian immigrants who had just arrived at the IFSI office, the promise of spring renewal was still uncertain. We invited them to meet one another, share their stories, and learn about strategies and resources. Our purpose was to help them navigate their way towards a better life in their newly adopted country. Recovering mental health was also a goal for each of them.

After greetings and a formal welcome, they stood in a circle with a few staff members and the IFSI youth film crew who were there to document the gathering. While sharing their names, participants tossed back and forth colorful yarn balls across the circle. Despite the occasional drop, light pressure to perform, and mounting laughter, a 'group juggle' was achieved. This uncommon collective challenge from Project Adventure illustrated how juggling various life challenges could often be more achievable and enjoyable when collaborating with others. Also, it broke the ice, quickly built bonds, and set a tone for the personal sharing ahead. They sensed one could open up and trust members of this group, not worry about being perfect with their words, and feel reassured that this would be a safe space. 

After a moment to reflect, frame goals, and grasp the structure for the afternoon, they all settled into chairs around a table covered with picture cards. Each person then selected three cards representing aspects of their migration journeys and hopes for the future. Sharing stories with strangers still felt risky but less so now that a playful moment and sense of clear purpose connected them. 

Doro started - ‘I chose this card,' he said, 'An image of a boat and people going to sea because it describes my situation. I am one of the Haitians who experienced the worst kind of trauma while on the road trying to get here.  It has been such a path of tribulation ever since we left Peru, having to cross ten countries. At one point, we took a small boat from Colombia to Panama, where we then walked for seven nights through the jungle. We were unable to see any light except the occasional glow from the sky. During daylight we had to hide sleeping in open abandoned fields. 

Then it was on to Mexico where we didn't receive any support and the Haitian consulate was not very helpful. They do little there to help their people. All these experiences caused me to feel disappointed by the leaders of my country. Feeling no love… It is so sad especially since we are supposedly the first free black people in the world. Sure, we no longer have chains binding our feet but it feels like we still have them in our minds.'

Though his past was bleak, Doro expressed more hope for the future. 'Here in Boston though,' he reflected, 'It is a little different as we find Haitians who talk with us, try to understand how we are living, and then help us’.

Doro went on, ‘My next card shows two people tracing a heart with their fingers. I chose it because I hope we will find people like this who show us some love which is really needed since we still have nothing here. We don't know how long we'll be here, and we're facing all kinds of difficulties… and we are the lucky ones. On the road, I met many people, but some would never finish the journey.  They were left behind to die in the seas or the forests. The government, here, should try to understand us and spare us from these risks and further misery since we have already suffered so much.’

Next, Doro looked down at his feet and described his arrival experience with the border patrol. 'Instead of being welcomed and supported, we were imprisoned, myself eventually released but with an ankle monitoring device. To them, it is only a little band placed on one's ankle, but to us, it is a shackle embedded deep into our minds. The device doesn't only prevent me from moving around but also from really living, sleeping or thinking clearly. When the battery would run low it buzzed every couple of minutes eventually driving me crazy. At night now, even with the device no longer attached to my ankle, dreams of its vibrating sounds still wake me.  Then I become unable to go back to sleep. We have experienced too much misery….many of us traumatized to the point of losing our minds'.

Then, just as the group listening to Doro fell into empathic despair, he shifted to a more hopeful tone. 'Finally,' he said, 'I chose this card, another heart, this one carved out of rocks. I am hopeful that I can be inspired again by the love symbolized here'. 

The IFSI ‘Immigrant Navigator’ is a multi-lingual web portal with associated in-person services that ease and accelerate the settlement and social integration of vulnerable, often undocumented immigrants. A key feature are the stories these immigrants share with IFSI staff through interviews and from which other immigrants gain inspiration, lessons and tips about how to navigate the perilous journey and US integration process. These stories also educate a broader US public including policy makers and service providers. Every 2 weeks a new story is published on the IFSI Blog. Our third story, “Escaping Prison of the Mind'' captures the psychological struggles of one man who, while trapped by historic patterns of injustice, still has a capacity for hope and even love. Thank you for reading — and for welcoming these newcomers to our communities!” - Dr. Geralde Gabeau, Founder & Executive Director.

Navigator Lessons:

  1. It is common to feel betrayed by one’s home country and government for the conditions that caused one to leave.
  2. It can be helpful to try to understand and place one’s experience within a wider historic and social context. At the same time try to not allow feelings of resentment to dominate one's thoughts.
  3. Sharing personal experiences and reflections with others can be very helpful as one can gain other valuable perspectives and strategies for changing a fixed mindset such as Doro’s ‘prison of the mind’ analogy.
  4. Continue seeking help as it is likely one will eventually find the friendship and support needed.
  5. Hope, persistence and love are powerful attributes which, when focused upon, can lead to better mental health and life prospects in a new homeland.

By The IFSI Immigrant Navigator Team: Dr. Mario Malivert, Larry Childs, Makendi H. Alce, Angie Gabeau and William Pierre-Louis, Jr. 

Cartoon illustrations: Teddy K. Mombrun

Caption 1: Doro reflects on disturbing parallels between his buzzing prisoner ankle monitor and the historic chains of slavery.

Caption 2: While participating in a focus group with other Haitian migrants at the IFSI offices Doro shares a postcard of rocks forming the shape of a heart. He said it represents how despite the many hardships he remains capable of love and hopeful for a better future.