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A Second Life

posted by Georgina de Barros

Being an immigrant or refugee in Canada can feel like you’re living two lives. There is the life you currently lead, with all its challenges and successes, and there is the life you could be leading had you stayed in your first country. The feeling of this “second life” is all the more compelling because it’s all suppositional; you can never really know what your life would have been like had you not come to Canada. This “second life” can be so vivid that when an immigrant returns to their first country, they can be shocked by the reality of how things have changed.

For someone who has escaped war, this “second life” has an added feeling of sorrow and survivor’s guilt. You know how those that have stayed behind are suffering in ways that you are not, and it is easy for you to place yourself in their position. Since a part of you is always there, the worry and fear can seem almost immediate.  And if someone you love is in distress, the feeling of helplessness is an added pain.

Waterloo Region has a long tradition of welcoming refugees escaping such trauma, and was even settled by Mennonites fleeing religious persecution.  In 1956, KW Counselling Services (then the KW Family Service Bureau) worked with other local groups to help Hungarian refugees settle in the area.  Our current community is no different, as we welcome refugees from such places as Sub-Saharan Africa (particularly Sudan) and the Middle East (particularly Syria). The refugees bring with them a complicated set of needs, both practical and abstract, immediate and long-term.

Hungarian Refugees

Hungarian refugees in 1956

Going forward, community agencies, government services and caring individuals will help these refugees to get settled and receive the help they need.  However, also crucial is the support provided by those who are from the same culture and have established lives here. These individuals and groups are often the bridge between agencies and service users, as they help newcomers navigate systems with the benefit of their own experience. For someone who is new to Canada, there is no replacement to having someone who speaks your language, from your country, tell you, “Here’s what I did...”

At KW Counselling Services, we have a fifteen-year tradition of helping these helpers, through programs such as Bridging Resources.  Participants often come to us looking for information on community resources or for meeting space, but it soon becomes clear that the impact of supporting those who have escaped trauma can be traumatic in and of itself. As therapists, we are trained to be aware of the impact of “secondary trauma” and “compassion fatigue”, and to acknowledge it as a real consequence of doing work where our emotional reserves are one of the tools. Even still, professionals can ignore this impact until it becomes a problem.  For community leaders, this is also a reality and it can be even more easily dismissed as “complaining” because you are expected to help those “like you”. In conversation, one community leader working with refugees shared, “How can I stop (working) when my people continue to suffer? I’m one of the lucky ones.”


Spring 2015 Bridging Resources Class

Our Director of Training, Multicultural and Trauma Services, Veena Kaur, will be holding a therapeutic session on secondary trauma for community leaders working with refugees on March 16, 2016.  An important part of the session will be creating a space where people can share their experiences. There is no replacement for feeling understood and being told that your feelings are valid. For those of us who work with survivors of trauma, it can often feel as though your own trauma is not worthy of attention, but ignoring a problem can make it worse instead of better.

As a community, we have shown great compassion towards refugees who are hoping to make a new home in Canada. It is also important that we make time to appreciate and reach out to those who have been working hard to bring these people here in the first place, and who will continue to offer support and help in the future. For those working with refugees from their own country, the “second life” they could have lived will stay with them long after any particular story stops being news. 

If you are interested in attending the session or further trainings for community leaders please contact Georgina de Barros at or 519.884.0000 x212.  For professionals interested in secondary trauma training, please contact Veena Kaur at or at 519.884.0000 x219.  

Georgina de Barros is KW Counselling Services’ Multicultural Outreach Worker.