Gaza and the Refugee Challenge

Gaza and the Refugee Challenge 

By Ford Rowan | Jan 3, 2024

A presentation to the International Club of Annapolis

I am honored to speak with you about refugees.

Most of us think of refugees as other people. strangers. newcomers. aliens. others.

People who swim actress the river from Mexico to Texas. wetbacks.

I think of refugees differently. When I was very young, my grandmother taught me that
I am a refugee.

My family has been in the United States for more than 100 years. So how can I be a refugee? I had relatives that fought on both sides of the Civil War.

So how can I be a refugee?

I am part Choctaw. My grandmother was born on the Choctaw reservation in Oklahoma.

When I was a child my grandmother told me horror stories about how my family was kicked off our ancestral home in Mississippi.

We were forced by US President Andrew Jackson onto the TRAIL OF TEARS. Forced to march on foot from Mississippi, through Arkansas, to Oklahoma. On foot.

It was particularly unfair because the Choctaws were instrumental in Jackson’s political career. He had been able to win the battle of New Orleans because the Choctaws under Pushmatheta joined and fought for Jackson’s side. Later, my ancestor, Chief Greenwood Leflore, was forced by Jackson to sign the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek that put our people on the Trail of Tears.

I recount this story because my grandmother had such a vivid memory of the Trail of Tears. A memory of trauma on the Trail of Tears. After she told me these stories, I had nightmares about the Trail of Tears. I was young, but I remembered.

It was only years later that I learned that my grandmother was born decades after the Trail of Tears. She had inherited the agony of being a refugee.

I tell you this story because it is about how trauma is transmitted across generations.

One of my colleagues on the board of the International Dialogue Initiative, Vamik Volkan is a famous psychiatrist who has written books on the “Transgenerational Transmission of Trauma.”

I have witnessed the transmission of trauma in the volunteer work I did for 20 years in prisons in Maryland (until COVID caused me to be locked out of prison.) Many of the inmates who opened up about their past had been traumatized as youngsters. They were trauma victims before they became traumatizers of their victims.

Why am I telling all this? Because the transmission of trauma across generations is the biggest stumbling block to resolving conflicts between ethnic groups, tribes, political factions, governments, people in Israel, Gaza. People in Ukraine.

The memory of trauma is the cause of the major psychological barriers to peace in the world.

My masters degree at Harvard was all about the transmission of trauma during the Crusades.
You can go into the Middle East now and ask almost anyone — Muslim, Jew, Christian — about the Crusades and you will quickly realize they are not talking about history. They view the Crusades as current events.

I tell you all this because I am a board member of the International Dialogue Initiative that was formed by Dr. Volkan and a dozen psychologists and psychiatrists plus some folks like me who have a masters degree in Organizational Psychology or Social Psychology.

The IDI is working to identify the psychological barriers to peacemaking and encourage dialogue between those who are having trouble working together.

The IDI published a book “We don’t Speak of Fear: Large Group identity, Societal Conflict and Collective Trauma.” We have board members from all over the world, including Israel, Palestine, Iran, Turkey, Britain, Germany. Russia.

One of our members is the attorney for the Palestinian Authority. Another member is a former official of the Israeli Security and Intelligence Community. They get along but do not always agree. Several of our folks have family members in Israel who were killed this year. Casualties on both sides.

I do not want to leave you thinking of extremes but Casualties and Hostages are a reality.

The situation in Gaza is particularly dreadful. Innocent citizens have been killed and the shortage of medicines, food, and water persist. The bombing has been dreadful.

I have been on conference calls at 3 AM our time, which is business time in Israel. We;ve been trying to get life-saving medicines and food into Gaza. Some of our members are trying to get a larger voice for the United Nations. It has not been easy. Success is in shortage.

The International Dialogue Initiative is continuing to work for peace but there’s a lot of work still needed. We have had an easier time figuring out what the psychological impediments to peace are than in actually getting officials into dialogue. We will continue our efforts.

One of the most promising approaches is a book by Rabbi Michael Lerner. Lerner’s book is Healing Israel/Palestine: A Path to Peace and Reconciliation. It’s a tremendous book.

Rabbi Lerner writes that we have a choice. “A first step is for both sides to stop the ‘blame game,” that claims one side is right and the other is wrong. Both sides have been cruel and hurtful toward the other.

He calls for a new spirit of generosity, open-hearted reconciliation, and a genuine commitment to nonviolence.

I think we should all pray for this.

Best wishes,

Ford Rowan

Prepare for the Influx of Refugees

Prepare for the Influx of Refugees 

By Ford Rowan | June 20, 2022

The slow pace of refugee settlement may be about to get busy here in the United States because of the carnage in Ukraine.

The need to help victims of the Russian attacks in Ukraine is obvious. But two other problems may complicate them.

First, the US government has been moving slowly to admit refugees from Afghanistan, many of whom are housed at or near military bases in America.  Afghan refugees have a tough time getting admitted into communities, including Annapolis.  Folks from several churches have been eager to help, but the pipeline for admitting them is very slow .

Right now my church, St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, is teamed with First Presbyterian Church and with Calvary United Methodist Church to support a family that is currently living in a house in downtown Annapolis.  We need to prepare for more. 

On June 13, I participated in a zoom call with the leadership of the Maryland VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters).  It is an umbrella group working with the US government and state and local groups active in volunteer services. It is affiliated with the Lutheran refugee service as well as numerous church groups.

The Maryland VOAD has been given $6,000 to help Afghan refugee relief.  About 2,000 Afghan refugees have now been cleared for entry from military bases into American society; a process that is taking longer than many of us expected.  Some are in temporary housing and do not have cars.  

The leaders of VOAD also expect a large number of refugees from Ukraine will also come.  The preliminary estimate is about 100,000 (of which 1,000 could be expected to settle in Maryland).  These Ukrainian refugees must have sponsors in order to provide transportation and housing.  VOAD is asking congregations to help by sponsoring these families.

The second complication is due to a separate migration: those migrants who have crossed the Southern border into Texas and Arizona and are now coming by busloads into DC and Maryland suburbs. This exodus is separate from the Afghan and Ukraine refugee arrivals. Here in Annapolis our St. Anne’s refugee committee had planned to help tutor Hispanic students but COVID forced us to put off this project two years ago. 

In recent weeks I talked with 3 experts in Europe about the refugee challenge.  One is a news reporter who has been in the front lines covering the war in Ukraine, one is an ambassador from a nation that is a NATO member, and one is a university professor who was born in Ireland and was traveling there during the time I was in Europe. They all said that the Ukrainian refugee numbers will grow a lot.  

I was told that efforts by some countries — like Britain — to turn refugees away and send them to Rwanda might increase.  I came away from these conversations feeling that the refugee situation is likely to get much bigger than Europe can manage by itself.  

If so, we need to be ready to help.  The lull that we have experienced is temporary.  We have a healthy collaboration with Methodists, Presbyterans, and — I hope soon — with Catholics and Lutherans.  The challenge will be to expand our sponsoring of families here in Annapolis.

Please continue to pray for those whose homes have been destroyed, whose lives have been uprooted, and are seeking to live peacefully here.  Please remember that Jesus instructed us to welcome strangers and love our neighbors.  




Trauma in Ukraine

Trauma in Ukraine

By Ford Rowan | March 31, 2022

Below is a transcript of Ford Rowan’s presentation of at a conference sponsored by the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies and the Potomac Institute on March 31, 2022.

I welcome the opportunity to talk about genocide and mass dislocation.

I appreciate the work of the Potomac Institute, its Center for Health Policy and Preparedness, and the Center’s leader, Dr. Donald Donahue, in seeking global solutions to the problems plaguing our health, including our mental health, and promoting “interdisciplinary training in health preparedness and resiliency.”

Resiliency is the antidote to a major challenge: the transgenerational transmission of trauma and genocide.

I look at this through several different lenses. First, when I was a news reporter and Pentagon Correspondent for NBC NEWS. I covered combat in the Middle East as well as the Watergate trials, the end of the Vietnam war, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident.

Years later, when I practiced law, I consulted on the problems at the Hanford nuclear waste site in Washington State, as well as advising airline executives during the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York and the Pentagon. My doctoral dissertation was on the anthrax attacks and how to respond to bioterrorism, chemical warfare, and nuclear war.

I helped establish a think tank at the National Defense University, the National Center for Critical Incident Analysis which later became an independent entity. One of our projects was to train state and local public health officials on risk communication in the H1N1 pandemic. I wish we could have trained federal public health officials during COVID.

Today, I’m a fellow at the International Dialogue Initiative, a think tank that seeks to understand and cope with the psychological barriers to peace.

In grad school at Johns Hopkins I studied applied behavioral science — organizational psychology, the behavior of large groups, the identity issues underlying violence.

I recite all this to give you a three-fold idea of where I’m coming from: 1) observer, 2) responder, 3) healer. Full disclosure: I have not been very successful in the last two.

Right now, I’m helping my church find housing and jobs for Afghan refugees. Soon we will work with refugees from Ukraine.

The genocide in Ukraine presents new opportunities to understand this humanitarian crisis. Even though my track record is not very good on prevention, here’s some comments on the challenge that Yonah Alexander posed for us to deal with – quote – “potential ethnic, racial, religious or national genocide.”

The religious aspect is fascinating. Putin invokes religion often and claims that the Orthodox Church supports his violence in Ukraine. I’m not an expert on Orthodox theology so I will withhold judgment. I do know about genocide, however.

I learned about genocide when I was as a young boy 70 years ago. My grandmother – who was born on the Choctaw reservation – told me horror stories about the Trail of Tears, about the illness and deaths after our people were forced from our ancestral home in Mississippi to a reservation in Oklahoma in the 1830s. Our numbers had already been greatly reduced by the diseases the Europeans brought from across the ocean.

The horror stories about the Trail of Tears were so vivid, I assumed my grandmother was an eyewitness on the Trail of Tears. No, she was born 50 years after the Trail of Tears. The trauma had been inherited, transmitted across generations.

The transgenerational transmission of trauma can trigger all sorts of violence. The First Crusades are remembered in some Middle East nations NOT just as events a thousand years ago, but as the fuel for the fires of continuing atrocities. Not history, but current events.

How will the people of Ukraine – in future generations – feel about the trauma that’s happening right now? And how will the people of Russia feel?

One of the most interesting books I’ve read is Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress by Rachel MacNair.[i] Not only does violence beget violence, but warfare can cause trauma for the warrior who perpetrates violence.

I’ve talked with US Servicemen who served in Vietnam and still have nightmares about their battles. One man who was a decorated hero, was a sniper. He told me his terrifying dreams of seeing the face of someone he shot in the crosshairs, squeezing the trigger, as he woke up from his nightmare.

I can attest that many of the inmates I’ve met in my volunteer work over 20 years in 10 prisons here in the United States were victims before they became victimizers and were traumatized by perpetrating assaults on others.

This turned out to be relevant to the issues in the Ukraine. Is there any hope of interrupting the transgenerational transmission of trauma?

Having admitted shortcomings in my efforts to be a responder and a healer, let me focus briefly on my first career, as an observer, as a news reporter. I still believe that the truth can set us free.

Ukrainians carry the significant burden of sequential trauma: devastation by the Wehrmacht in the Second World War, the forced starvation of the Holodomor, and Soviet suppression. The resilience and defiance they have demonstrated over these past five weeks is nothing short of remarkable. Yet to be determined is how they fare following this latest trauma.

A sad aspect of the Ukraine combat is the Russian clampdown on the free press in Russia. The people of Russia are having to use social media to find out how badly the battle has been for their troops, how horrible the impact on citizens, how dreadful for innocent children, women, and non-combatants. Even this may have a small silver lining, though, as individual Russians are seeking information from Radio Free Europe, mirror web sites, and ZVPNs that let them access sites that have been blocked by the Russian government.

Hearing a truthful explanation and listening to the truth, can help build resilience of those who are listening with an open mind.

Neuroscientists and neuropsychologists are working at the frontier of ways to enhance brain health. The best book I can recommend on dealing with trauma is Cynda Rushton’s Moral Resilience. She examines ways to build resilience, including ways that “spiritual, religious, and humanistic traditions [make] growth possible even after traumatic events.”[ii] She’s a faculty member at Hopkins and on the Berman Institute of Bioethics.

There is work to be done to build moral resilience and cope with trauma.

The Potomac Institute is a leader in the effort to train for health preparedness and resiliency. I hope it will contribute for a peaceful future.

[i] Rachel M. MacNair. (2002) Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing. Preager, Westport, CT.
[ii] Cynda Hylton Rushton (ed.) (2018) Moral Resilience: Transforming Moral Suffering in Healhcare. Oxford University Press, p. 105.




Uncertainty, Disunity and Injustice

IDI Podcast
A conversation between psychoanalyst Ed Shapiro and journalist/humanitarian Ford Rowan about Uncertainty, Disunity and Injustice.

Racial Trauma

A Dialog on How We Can Heal
With The Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

Beyond Isolation

Webinar: Returning to an Undistanced Workplace During COVID-19

The 6th Sunday After Pentecost

St. Anne's Church - July 4, 2021
Rowan was the guest preacher at St. Anne's on Independence Day.