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Expert Voices

A Stop on the Train

Published September 27, 2017

Fawn Bernhardt-Norvell is CVT’s director of development.

When I sat down to meet with a small group of women clients at CVT Jordan last spring, I felt nervous. The session was part of a donor trip I led to Amman, and it provided an opportunity for me and a handful of CVT supporters to hear directly from survivors about CVT’s impact on their lives. I’d been reading daily about the conflicts and atrocities our Middle East clients had escaped — but I’d been reading at home, from a safe distance. These women were about to bring me closer. I wasn’t expecting our time together to feel comfortable. And I certainly wasn’t expecting laughter. 

But there was laughter, and there was a lot of it. The women were full of life. They exuded confidence and resilience. And it was apparent, as they spoke, that they felt at ease with each other. CVT structures its group therapy sessions to facilitate this bond. Survivors typically don’t share their experiences until they’re well into the 10-week therapy cycle. One woman, however, seemed more detached than the others. She sat quietly in the circle we’d formed, clutching the intricately embroidered purse on her lap.

Our one-hour meeting over tea and refreshments modeled the group therapy sessions CVT Jordan offers during a 10-week cycle. Nine out of the ten participating women attended our meeting, even though it wasn’t required.  I hadn’t grasped how significant this was until I learned that most of the women managed large households and didn’t have easy access to transportation. While they represented a range of countries – Iraq, Syria, Sudan – and socio-economic backgrounds, each of the women sought out CVT for the same reason: her children. Some of the mothers noticed their children exhibiting signs and symptoms of trauma, like sleeplessness, acting out and wetting the bed. One woman’s children were disabled. Another woman was estranged from her child, who remained in a faraway refugee camp. She told me, “I am in pain because I’m separated from my child.”

All of the women struggled to help their families. They were unable to work due to their refugee status. In Jordan the unemployment rate is 15 percent and as a result, child labor is prevalent. The women lived in crowded inner-city communities – dry, dusty neighborhoods punctuated with vibrant clothing and Jordanian flags – some of which I’d driven through a day earlier. Most of them hoped to move to the U.S., where they envisioned a better life for themselves. Some had even completed their first or second interview for resettlement, and they were frustrated. They wondered why, after meticulously following procedures and adhering to multiple background checks, they hadn’t seemed to make any progress in the resettlement process.

In spite of these challenges, the women appeared hopeful. They said they hadn’t let their circumstances, or their torture, define them. They felt empowered by the support network they’d formed at CVT Jordan and the care they receive there, which includes psychotherapy, physiotherapy (for the injuries they’d sustained, and for reintroducing themselves to positive physical touch), even civic education.  “We know our rights now,” one woman said. “And we stand up for them.” As we continued to discuss CVT, I began to relax. Then the silent woman with the embroidered purse suddenly spoke. She said, “At CVT I learned that life is like a train that makes many stops. Sometimes, the train stops and people get off, but sometimes new people get on. Our experiences are stations along the train track of life.” That’s when I realized how extraordinary this experience was — that such an unlikely group of women could sit down together in the same room, chat freely about our very different lives, attempt to understand each other and, remarkably, laugh.

Funding for CVT’s work in Jordan is provided by the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration and the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture.

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