If I didn't look through a standard school questionnaire filled out by Sasha, a 14-year-old boy, I would never know what he declared there, in «About myself» section. He wrote in Russian, «When I moved to Israel, I lost everything».
To be honest, I was surprised, knowing Sasha as a quiet and shy boy. What did he lose? His father who, being a heavy drinker, hasn’t seen him for months? His grim poverty? What? Remembering his eyes and smile, I'm thinking what a capable student he is and how he pumps at his mathematics. How impossible it was to know he had been experiencing a sense of loss and emptiness and depression being in an imminent danger. His nice and sensitive teacher was just in time to notice that he wasn't trying to learn the language, so we managed to express him our sympathy for his loss and, nevertheless, to get him motivated for learning Hebrew. Other teachers weren't so worried about it, because Sasha was a clever boy and he never caused them problems. Every day they had to resolve more serious situations in the class.
Once, standing in a queue in our canteen, Denis as if unintentionally recommended me to watch an Estonian film The Class. Otherwise, I would never see it, and would not know that, on moving to our country and being a fifth grader, he had to experience conflicts with his peers. As a result, he has distanced himself from other kids. What happened there? Nothing, really… Getting peeved at his peer, Denis came to blows with him. It's bad, but nobody is perfect. Denis was scolded at school and at home. He was so frustrated and felt so helpless without knowing the language and local customs that he couldn't reach out to his peers. He was a slow learner who kept an awkward silence. His loneliness was almost absolute.
The share of such young people is around 10 to 15 percent. We could see and hear them if we tried. The children’s distress goes unheeded due to following issues: everyday routine, a huge backlog in cases, assimilative policies… They are getting unnoticed for the school staff, because such children don't make problems. They often seem to be passive and sad as they face the social embarrassment. These teenagers may be angry, but they can't express their anger. They may be sad, but they can't receive sympathy from people. However, they face various difficulties. People pay attention to these teenagers when their problems are getting much more acute: they are not entitled to matriculation certificates or they have psychosomatic or mental disorders. Besides, the reasons that cause mental illnesses are often not clear either to the family, nor to the school staff… I’ll try to bring the light to the issue.
Teenagers are special individuals: wise, shrewd, rebellious, funny and eager to reveal themselves (you probably remember). And of course, every girl or boy has their own unique path in life. The main challenge of a teenager is to find a social identity, in other words, to be independent. Of course, from their early age children are discovering who they are. However, adolescence is a critical stage for becoming an independent individual. The task is not easy, as time is fast approaching for flying out of the nest and meeting unforeseen future.
Without going into details, I’ll list main teenager’s tasks. Young people have to plan and to manage their time, to find their social roles, to be more confident, to have their own values and beliefs, to determine the attitude to authorities, to make their way in education, to decide on their sexual preferences, and so on.
There are some statuses in the process of individuation:
1. Diffuse identity is a status in which a coherent, definite identity is absent: the adolescent does not search or make decisions.
2. Premature identity is a status in which one’s own internal search has not been carried out, and decisions are made under the influence of external circumstances. The adolescent has preset goals, rules of conduct and ideals, a «lifelong» plan for future, compiled by parents or other persons of authority.
3. A moratorium is a status in which a teenager is in an internal search, in the process of constructing an identity — a transition from a lack of sense of identity or from premature identity to a constructed identity.
4. Achieved identity is a status in which a teenager has built his own plans that are different from his parents' plans for future. These plans can be revised if necessary, because, from a teenager’s point of view, the future exists for self-realization, and not for the achievement of ideals, predetermined by someone else in advance.
In addition, I should say that the process of constructing an identity is not entirely rational and intellectual, but rather intuitive and spontaneous. A teenager does not ask who he is like, but sort of emerges from sensations and feelings. It is obvious that moving to Israel will necessarily affect the process of individuation.
It is especially hard for some adolescents to experience a period of language acquisition which causes delays in their carrying out of teenage tasks. The school often imposes rules and regulations on immigrant teens, actively intrudes their privacy borders, wishes to change them. Unfortunately, it does not always help to use their past experience in building identity.
«New rules» often contradict deep cultural attitudes developed in the childhood. For example, how to deal with one's own and others' aggression, what are the legitimate ways of self-expression, how to express the need for support and attention.
Loss in adolescence
It is difficult to evaluate the extent to which hard it was hard for a teenager to lose the opportunity to speak his or her native tongue, to part with friends and with his beloved nature and to lose confidence. It is clear, however, that Denis and Sasha did have something to lose. When children experience immigration as a hard sense of loss, they may have the following feelings: numbness, despair, guilt, shame, anger (and other manifestations of emotional instability) and, then, they have to work them through.
This process is known as «grief work». It lasts long and it’s not so easy. The paradox is that if you try to speed up or reduce the «work of grief», then the children can just get stuck at any of the stages mentioned above.
What can interfere with the working out? There can be a lot of things. For example, cultural prohibitions such as «Don't be such a wuss!» do not afford teenagers (especially boys) to be sad and to grieve. In addition, there isn’t enough awareness in schools of psychological processes accompanying immigration. Historically, immigration to Israel has been ideologically connected to joy and achievement of freedom, so that other reactions are not very welcome.
Also, there is a common, but not very useful belief that wise arguments and highest motives can help a teenager to adapt to new conditions. However, teenagers are not very appreciative of such attempts.
Some people are sure that it's better not to feel and not to express negative emotions. A girl says she doesn't want to go to school. More than that, she doesn’t want anything. That may mean she is sad, exhausted or even in despair. But we talk her down asking to do her homework. The girl can't disobey our wishes. Anyway, she is still suffering. In other words, she has to do what she doesn't want to meet our expectations. You may agree that practicing this kind of life is to experience a humiliating position. It is not good for a human being to stay in this position for long.
As opposed to common beliefs, grief work is always the process of self-regulation that is going on all the time within the psyche. It's a much better way of adjusting to a new of life. Support is what may help.
School does not work with immigrants' feelings of loss
The majority of schools still keep to assimilative policies, which come to the following formula — «Learn Hebrew, join in and get ready for exams and army». This is not bad, but the work on expressing feelings associated with loss is not always, to put it mildly, provided.
Meanwhile, adolescents need help in their awareness and experience. They need help in understanding and approving of their needs, in finding ways to express them at school. Teachers and the school administration should be encouraged to be attentive to their immigrant students. This function is often absent at the school.
It is necessary to fill this gap.