Memories and life purpose – shaped by previous generations?

For many years, I’ve had a deep desire to support refugees and asylum seekers, in particular, women. It’s seen me secure funding for a two-year Job Placement Project for Refugees; mentor a 21 year old Somali girl for a year; and lead a global campaign on behalf of my friend Afusat, a Nigerian lady seeking asylum on the grounds of risk of female genital mutilation to her two little girls.

It’s a deep pull that I haven’t been able to explain to myself.  Sometimes it’s been exhausting, but I ‘have’ to carry on, despite encountering resistance from others, including friends and family at times.

I knew that, as children, my own parents had to flee from Pakistan to India during Partition in 1947. I also knew that they’d witnessed many disturbing scenes.  However, since they had been unwilling to talk about it, I hadn’t contemplated how their trauma may have affected me. I hadn’t considered whether it had played a role in my need to reach out to this particular group of people.

Yesterday, for the first time, my parents sat together with me and recounted their experiences for me to write about.  Some of the things I learnt were horrific. How my then 13 year old dad had left on camel and witnessed seen slain Muslims on the street.  And how, whilst swimming in a river, two skulls, belonging to men who had been beheaded, floated towards him.

Childhood memories: Anj and mum in India
Me with mum on a trip to India (ca 1976)

How my aunt, her mum and newly-married sister were made to watch their menfolk line up and have their throats slit by fighters from the North West Frontier; and that the women were then taken to a camp for a year.

Aunty never spoke of what happened to them during that time. I’d only heard of her rescue a year later by my dad’s uncle, an England-educated dentist who sheltered many refugees in his large home in Dehradun.

How mum, aged seven, was taken away by train, first class, since she was recovering from typhoid.

How, in Jammu, she watched her dad give water to a desperately thirsty Muslim boy.  The boy was being crushed in an over-crowded train full of Muslims refugees travelling the other way.

I learnt that granddad was a Hindu nationalist, but couldn’t bear to see a child suffer. He himself had been pre-warned about the coming riots by a fellow shopkeeper, a Muslim friend.

Could it be that these ‘memories’ have somehow been passed to me though my bloodline? Or is my passion for helping refugees and asylum seekers just co-incidence? After all, my siblings don’t feel the way that I do.

Inherited memories?

A couple of years ago, I learnt about how ‘memories’ pass between generations through genetic switches that allow children to inherit the experience of their ancestors.  The technical term, if you’re interested, is ‘transgenerational epigenetic inheritance.’ It means that surroundings can affect an individual’s genetics, which can in turn be passed on.

For a long time, scientists assumed that memories and learned experiences built up during a lifetime must be passed on to future generations – either by teaching or through personal experience.

Research from Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta has shown that it’s possible for some information to be inherited through chemical changes that occur in DNA. Add to this the concept of Epigenetics (additional information layered on top of the sequence of letters that make up DNA).

Now questions are raised about where these changes come from. Until recently, research in this field has been undertaken on animals, but scientists are now taking the effect on humans more seriously. I’ll be watching developments with interest.

Our future generations

New generations from Syria, to Sierra Leone are growing up to scenes they should never be made to witness.  We must consider the wisdom of elders.  Just look to the 12th Century Constitution of the Iroquois Nation (The Great Binding Law) and its explanation of the ‘seventh generation’ philosophy:

“The thickness of your skin shall be seven spans – which is to say that you shall be proof against anger, offensive actions and criticism.  Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.”

About Anj Handa

I want to help women feel confident and resilient enough to create positive change in society, no matter how small; and to build a network of peers to support each other.

Asylum seekers and refugee women are the group where my own attention is focussed, but there’s much to be done for other parts of society too: this is where a network of proactive women comes in.

Men are important in moving this forward too.  There were men that helped me get messages out to peers in a way that I couldn’t: retired, white English professional men and twenty-something African male students in particular.  There was something very special about that: #HeforShe in practice!

If you’re interested in knowing more about how you can help refugee support organisations or get involved in Inspiring Women Changemakers, please get in touch. My email address is

You can get involved on Facebook or Twitter.

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