Systemic Reflections on the Personal Experience of Migration

by Alemka Dauskardt

The Migration Phenomenon

 Migration is a major life event, which introduces changes to almost every aspect of a person’s life. Such changes are complex and many: changes of climate, life style, socio-economic status, professional life and family roles, to name just a few. The magnitude of change a person needs to undergo when migrating is reflected in some of the terms used to describe these changes, like culture shock or up-rootedness.

 Some of the major causes of international migration are: the seeking of better economic opportunities; escape from international or civil warfare; escape from persecution for political, religious, ethnic or class reasons; discontent with homeland restrictions on social mobility or personal development; a sense of adventure and a local tradition of emigration such that it is considered normal to move somewhere else.

 In literature that discusses different types of migration experiences, the distinction is usually drawn between a migrant and a refugee. The refugee is defined as a person with a well-founded fear of persecution because of racial or ethnic background and/or religious or political beliefs. The refugee is forced to leave or to flee because of persecution, oppression, imprisonment, torture or annihilation, or due to war and its atrocities.

 The immigrant (or migrant) has left his/her country voluntarily to come to another country and can return to it. The reasons may be personal or economic. The migrant might be escaping natural disasters, poverty and oppression. He/she moves in search of a better life. In the words of a ‘push-pull’ theory of migration, refugees move because of the push factors (the upheaval pushing them out of their country of origin), whilst migrants, in general, move due to pull factors (promise of a better life in a host country). Often, the distinction between the two is blurred.

 The changes brought about by migration are usually accompanied by loss – the loss of previously sustained values, the loss of the familiar, the loss of people and things that were dear. The totality of these losses can become a traumatic experience, which profoundly impacts on one’s identity.

 Following these losses is an exposure to a new environment where everything is different. Attending to ordinary tasks of living becomes something requiring a lot of energy. There is also so much new knowledge to be acquired. Grieving the losses sustained by migration demands time, energy and a degree of security which a migrant might not posses in the midst of dealing with the – at times – daunting task of resettlement.

 Many studies attest to stress and maladjustment, difficulties with coping, feelings of frustration and psychological distress in migrants. Along with depression migrants often exhibit symptoms of anxiety, suspiciousness, social withdrawal and learning inhibition. (Petrović, 2001).

 The language barrier, the culture gap, the lack of shared history and other obstacles can create a feeling of alienation.

 “The tension with which we live in the new world limits the spontaneity of our  responses and the task of social communication turns the social occasions we used to enjoy into a nightmare to be avoided at all costs.” (Meares in Zalokar, 1989)

 Acquiring language skills plays an important role in one’s adaptation to a new environment. Language is so central to one’s identity that it is impossible to stay the same while expressing oneself in another language. What cannot be described, expressed, reflected upon, shared with others – stops existing. Large parts of one’s identity can get ‘lost in translation’. (Hoffman, 1989).

 Also, successful communication with the environment does not depend on a spoken language only. Migrants have to learn dimensions of non-verbal communication like physical distance, eye contact, physical touch, appropriate expression of emotion and so on.

 Most studies of refugees report very high rates of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression, as well as anxiety disorders. The prevalence of PTSD is usually more than 50% and, for some particularly traumatised groups, may be as high as 90%. Post-traumatic stress disorder is common among refugees who were in direct combat, concentration camp prisoners, victims of torture and those persons who witnessed violence. (Petrović, 2001)


Personal experience – systemic reflections

 The mass people movements are not a new phenomenon and yet it seems that currently they are on such a scale and of such nature that it leaves us baffled, unprepared and at a loss to know how to respond. At least this is the case here in Europe at the moment, where the refugee crises is escalating and leaving us struggling for solutions.

 I live in Croatia, a country which has, so far, only been affected by emigration through the exodus of its people fleeing poverty or wars, regime persecution or ‘ethnic cleansing’ through centuries. This trend continues as young educated people of contemporary Croatia are searching for jobs and better opportunities elsewhere.

 In recent months the Croatian people and authorities have been watching some 350,000 refugees, mainly from Syria, who have been making their way through our country. We don’t have to worry about re-settling them, as Croatia is not their destination. They are only in transit to other, richer European countries.

 However, one cannot but be touched by these thousands of people, many with small children, often just walking their way to some other life than the one they had been living. Are they walking to safety? Are they struggling for their survival? What did they leave behind? What is awaiting them? One can’t help but ponder these questions.

 There are of course issues of immediate practicalities, then humanitarian and political issues, but what I think as I watch them walking with maybe just one bag in their hands, the other one holding a child, is how on earth will their souls make some sense of this upheaval, not only immediately but also in the long term? Will these children remember the countries they were born in? Will they ever go back or visit? Will some part of their family soul stay entangled with their roots, with those they left behind? How will their identity, their self-image form to negotiate such huge physical and cultural distance?

 Identity is a complex beast. You can give it a new name, in a new language, dress it in different clothes, teach it to live in a new environment and yet there seems to be a part of us, which is not transferable. Watching these people I also think of myself, emigrating to another country almost thirty years ago. As a ‘voluntary skilled migrant’ (that’s what we were called in Australia then) I was in very different circumstances, so privileged compared to these people trampling through my country today. And still, the migration ripped through my life, cutting it in half in a painful process which took many years of painstaking effort to stitch it back together, at least somewhat, in an attempt to hold the ends together. And it always was a bit of a patchwork, with many stitches coming undone.

 Many years later and back to the country I left from then, I can reflect and see that migration is what has shaped my life: relationships with my family, marriages and divorces, my motherhood and most of my work. It has influenced pretty much every aspect of my life. (Sometimes even for the better!)

 I worked with other migrants. Helping them to overcome their settlement difficulties and issues of adjustment that were affecting their mental health, was the major focus of my work for many years. Also, as a Counsellor/Advocate for the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture, I worked with those refugees who were worst affected by their prior experience, people traumatised and displaced from many different countries. I also worked with many of the refugees from the former Yugoslavia, my own country, as the war I was lucky enough not to experience directly, caught up with me in Australia. Some years later I researched into issues of the psychological adjustment of migrants.

 After many years of working hard at establishing myself in a new country, after living, working, researching and analysing this process of identity development (or rather identity re-shaping, sometimes identity breaking), I moved back to my country of origin. I like to say rather ‘moved forward’ because one can, of course, never go back.


Connection with the Land – Genius Loci[1]

 What I learned through this process was that roots are stronger than branches and that sometimes you can’t replant the tree. I learnt that we are born into a culture and this is not something that we can change or shake off easily. This is not to say that we cannot live elsewhere, but we are always someone from a different culture living in a land we were not born in.

 The landscape we are born into is etched into our soul and the soul only ever truly feels at ease among its own shores. The ties with the land of birth are very important, not only for aboriginal or tribal people as we sometimes think, but for all of us. We can learn a lot about respect for the land from the aboriginal people though, as indeed I did during my time in Australia. For aboriginal Australians life is inconceivable separate from their ancestral land. The ties between people and the land are strong and unbreakable. The nurturing which goes both ways is as tender as a mother’s touch, the connection as loving as that between two sweethearts.

 “For (Australian) Aboriginal people, religious beliefs are derived from a sense of belonging to the land, to the sea, to other people, to one’s culture. Being human is defined by where we have come from, who we are, and where we are going in relation to country and kin. For these people who have lived and loved here since the creation times, the land is more than a physical place; it is a moral sphere, the seat of life and emotions and place of the heart.” (Petrović,A. The Knowing Field, issue 10, 2007)


The more I was falling in love with the Australian landscape and the more I was learning about the Australian aboriginals’ love for their land, the more homesick for my own country I became. I had some rapturous moments of beauty and connection with the Australian landscape, in respect of which I finally had to bow and admit: “You are beautiful, but you are not mine.”

 The length of time spent in a country, of course, makes a difference and with many generations passed, even foreign lands become home, become us and we them. I do not know how long it takes, but my sense is that it takes a very, very long time. Maybe even longer than the white Australia has been in existence. In many a constellation facilitated there, you can safely just put a representative for the country of origin of family members and watch the entanglement unfold, even if the one who migrated was an ancestor from a number of generations ago. And of course for many ‘Australians’ this separation from the place of birth is a very personal, current, lived experience. A staggering 28% of Australia’s population –  6.6 million people – have been born overseas. In addition, according to figures of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 20% have at least one parent who was born overseas.

 In the case of some of our ancestors migrating a number of generations ago, we are more likely to see this event as a cause of systemic entanglement in subsequent generations, often a country of origin and its culture being an excluded aspect of the Family Soul.

 If people themselves have migrated, the issues are different. Then it is often not about the systemic entanglement connected with displacement, but this acute, lived experience of displacement shows as depression. Not an ordinary one, but a deep-seated loss of life energy, something like giving up, as if we were literally not drawing enough energy for life from our roots. Working closely with many a migrant, I have often experienced them as having an empty shell – physically present but with the soul elsewhere: in that Greek mountain village, on that Vietnamese fishing boat, dancing on the village square in Sicily or tending some old vineyard of Dalmatia.

 Many get sick or become invalids through work and other accidents. Sometimes it feels as if they cannot let themselves enjoy the new found prosperity, maybe not let themselves forget the ones left behind in poverty or wars or they may be simply honouring their countries of origin with their illness, misfortune or unhappiness.

 Of course, there are benefits too. Even going through the challenges of transformation can be an amazingly rewarding experience. The skills one has to learn in the process of migration are valuable and special, not available to those who stay within the bounds of their own village and their tribes all of their lives. In constellation terms, overcoming the limits of one’s conscience is something that those who travel between cultures master more quickly. And these certainly are the skills needed for the new world of tolerance, outgrowing the binds of our limiting group conscience.

 As a migrant you lose that cosy sense of belonging, the familiarity of kinship, the security of knowing the boundaries, but you learn how to overcome them and how to raise yourself to that which unites rather than separates.

 Of course we are all citizens of the world and we are all people more similar than different. And sometimes there are attitudes expressed that we all can and should outgrow our cultural and religious differences. But I really feel these claims are somewhat naïve and deny the complexities of the processes involved. We cannot outgrow easily that which deeply defines us, like: our culture, our religion, our ethnicity, our nationality. It is only by fully and deeply claiming them, feeling irrevocably entrenched in them – and agreeing to that! – that some degree of freedom and choice and universality can emerge.


We know from constellation work that we are deeply bound to our tribes by the common conscience and the very strong instinctive need to belong, which this conscience guards. We cannot so easily trick these forces!

 In wanting to create a better world without wars, differences or boundaries, we sometimes downplay that which is determined. We can change a name, take on a different religion; we can go and live anywhere on earth; we are free to make choices. But belonging is a facet of a very deep, instinctive force and will not be fooled. The full acceptance of who we are, starting with our mother and our father, families, clans, cultures, ethnicity, religion, whether we like it or not, with all that this entails and with all the consequences – this is the first step. We cannot bypass our culture any more than we can bypass the family we were born into. The acknowledgement of the limitations of our belonging is the first step in outgrowing them.


Many reject their country and their culture in the similar way they reject their mother and with similar, but much more grave consequences. Most constellation practitioners are familiar with the effect that the rejection of mother carries. Less is known of the strong effect the rejection of our Motherland has.


Many migrants leave their countries because they judge and reject as unacceptable something in that country’s past. In a little desert town of Alice Springs, landlocked in Central Australia, which is as far from any shore as you can imagine, one can find quite a few Germans dealing with their issues of ‘German guilt’ through Constellation work there.


I too, as I have found out through constellation work, married first someone from my grandfather’s victims’ tribe and found it easier to be in Australia, such a big distance from the perpetrator aspect of my Croatian nation. And I also felt myself to be better and superior in rejecting these aspects. The problem of course is that with that, I also rejected my own origin and severed the roots, which had been feeding me.


So, not only the consequences, but also the reasons for migration are very often systemic. If we are not literally rejecting our countries and our connectedness, than we might be actually looking for someone who is missing from our family – like the unacknowledged child from the father’s extramarital relationship or the first love of our mother’s – something or someone we know is missing just through this inexplicable yearning of our soul. Then we go into the world searching for it. Or at other times we exile ourselves, repeating the destiny of someone who was expelled, rejected or denied the right to belong. Migration can be the means of living out an identification with previous ones excluded from our systems.

 I also had this aspect present in my own life story.


Refugees and Abandonment of a Country

 How is it with refugees, with those who are fleeing calamities? Those who have no choice? No systemic reasons or consequences? Years ago, as the war was raging in my country and I worked with many of my countryfolk who as refugees made their way to Australia, I heard Bert Hellinger say something about refugees that seemed to be very tough to hear. And even as humanitarian and survival issues were in everyone’s focus then, I sensed how right and pertinent his words were. He said:

 “People migrate because often they want to escape the events in their own country. However, they often get sick and unwell in a new country. When they go home they regain their strength. Everyone can only be at home, at maximum strength in his own country, his own place, his own family. And even if they leave because of war, it is harder for them than if they had stayed. And when they go home, they are treated like traitors, rightfully so.” (Hellinger, 2003)


In the years to follow, having the opportunity to observe some of these people over a decade or so, I witnessed exactly that. I realised too what a difficult choice people in these circumstances had to make. There is no advice to be given to anyone who finds themselves in this situation.

 Hellinger also had something to say about life in a new country, how to best approach it from a systemic point of view once we are there:

 “When you come to another country and you are accepted there, you have to leave your country behind and agree that you are part of the new. And you have to earn that, to be a part of and respect the country. Look at the Japanese in Brazil – they refuse to become Brazilians. Russians in Germany, they refused to become German, they drew upon themselves opposition and anger from others. So, when you go to another country and are accepted, then you agree to become part of that country – otherwise you become a minority. Some even take their Heaven with them – because the notion of Heaven is very different in different countries. But when they come to live in a new country, they have to leave their Heaven behind and also their God and their religion to become part of a new country and then they can develop there.” (Hellinger, 2003).


That has also been confirmed through my experience. Those migrants who ‘stick with their own’ in a new country never assimilate and always stay foreigners, migrants or refugees and are seen like this by others. To truly make a transition from one world to the other, it is not sufficient to be just physically present. We also have to ‘leave our God behind’. In these words the enormity of the challenge becomes more palpable. Nothing less is required for a successful transition.

 Interestingly, the research into the psychological adjustment of migrants is consistent with those phenomena we observe through the experience of systemic work. Some researchers argue that there are two separate variables, which contribute to the adjustment of migrants: psychological and socio-cultural.

 In their research with New Zealand immigrants Ward and colleagues found that those who strongly identified with their compatriots experienced less depression, but those who strongly identified with the host culture experienced less social difficulty. It seems that maintaining the culture of origin guards against psychological adjustment difficulties, whilst identification with a host culture aids socio-cultural adjustment. They have also found that “…identification with host cultures appeared to be associated with enhanced psychological adjustment when co-national identification is strong, but with decrements in psychological well-being when co-national identification is weak”. (Ward & Kennedy, 1994)


So, in a nutshell, be in strong touch with your roots AND leave them behind as you fully embrace the new culture – this seems to be a recipe for a good migration outcome. Add a hefty dose of constellation work insights along the way and you might have an edible pie! Maybe even one, which doesn’t leave the bitter systemic entanglement aftertaste for the descendants. Yet, still one that will take many years to bake.


Colonisation and Racism

 In this article I am focusing on the systemic consequences of migration, so I am not writing at length about racism and the marginalisation of  ‘newcomers’, but it does not mean that it doesn’t exist. It is usually invisible but interwoven in the very fabric of the society, so it is  commonplace. If you are born and bred in the host country, you often would not even notice your own racism. The attitudes of people towards migrants play a major role in their adjustment. In case of contemporary Australia, it is a country built through migration and also through colonisation. Its racism is institutional and ever-present. This is true within the field of constellations, too. Regardless of the goodwill of many, multi-culturalism is a concept, which often sounds better than it works in reality.

 There are of course systemic consequences that arise from taking the land from the indigenous Australians and their mistreatment that followed.

 “In Australia, aboriginals have to fill the hole in the soul for many Australians.” (Hellinger,  2001)

 These issues are not irrelevant to those who migrate to this country or the current migration policy. Without the blessings and the welcome of the first Australians to what was their country the Australian nation hasn’t got “…the moral legitimacy and a sound basis on which to seek and accept (also reject, author’s remark added) future migrants.” (Roach, 2002)


Epilogue Without Conclusion

 As for me, I have decided to take experimenting with identity formation through my own life even further. As I lived through my migration process, which continued for many years and as I fleetingly (with mixed feelings of longing, fear and hope) considered every now and then the idea of ‘going back’, I was reminded of Bert Hellinger’s words again, saying that once you have been away from your country for a number of years – there is no going back. In a sense that one loses one’s right to belong. And that made a lot of sense to me. I could feel how that was true for me too.

 Nevertheless, after almost thirty years of being away, I did move back to Croatia. It hasn’t been without challenges, but for the past seven years it has been working well for me. How did I ‘trick’ Bert and the forces he was talking about, when saying the return was not possible?

 I think it was because it was clear to me that there was no going back. And that I had in a way lost my right to belong to the national field of Croatia. I guess it was like a deep acceptance of ‘what is’.

 I was under no illusion that I could ‘go back’ and pick up the pieces from where I had left them. I approached it like another migration. I decided that I would build a new life here, together with my husband, almost from scratch again and if not as a total foreigner, at least as someone who was different from the others who had lived here all their lives. Maybe like someone familiar, maybe interesting, maybe like someone who brings something from the rest of the world, but certainly not as someone who belongs equally to those who have spent their entire lives here.

 Through this humble re-entry point I find that the joys of being ‘among one’s own’ are not totally lost for me. And I hear the echo of those words of Bert Hellinger’s that one is only in one’s full power and strength in one’s own country quite often. I even allow myself some rowdy nationalist sentiment every now and then, while watching a handball or a water polo game! That cosy sense of fully belonging to my tribe has been lost forever and cannot be regained. But I feel deep peace in my soul when gardening this Croatian soil or doing some vineyard cutting, hearing a traditional song I knew at a very young age playing in the background.

 Although alluding to a different type of a journey, the ending of Bert Hellinger’s story: ‘The Disciples’ about the one who has found his way back home from afar, often comes to mind:

  “He knows he has gone too far. So, he waits for dawn, turns homeward, and at last escapes the desert. Once again, he passes the abandoned gardens, until at last he stops before the garden that he knows to be his own. An old man is standing by the gate, as if awaiting him. He says, ‘If someone has found his way home from as far away as you have done, he loves the moist and fertile earth. He knows that all that grows will die, and in dying nourish what lives’. The wanderer replies: ‘Now I submit to earth’. Then he begins to husband his garden with tender care.” (Hellinger, 1998)

 But the end is not here yet! It is too early to draw conclusions. My own personal life experiment and the global movement of peoples will continue for some time to come and none of us knows what the long term effects will be.


article by Alemka Dauskardt

published in the international constellations journal “The Knowing Field”, issue 27, January 2016



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 [1] Genius Loci , Spirit of Place, is an intelligent spirit or magical power that resides in a place. Very few genius loci of this form are able to move from their native area, either because they are ‘part of the land’ or because they are bound to it. (Wikipedia)


Featured image: sculpture by Bruno Catalano