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Notes from the Ground

A Trauma-informed Approach to Community Resilience in Iraq

Published September 14, 2022
A sunset over a city skyline.

In the aftermath of conflict, people work to rebuild their lives and confront the impacts that traumatic events have had on them and their communities. In Iraq, local communities have faced violence and various conflicts for many years, such as Saddam Hussein’s genocide targeting the Kurds and other ethnic groups, Iraq-Iran war, Gulf war, civil wars, economic sanctions, ISIS and the United States’ “war on terror” that brought the war to Iraq. Although the most recent of the conflicts, the war with ISIS, is over, there is still violent aftermath and general insecurity in addition to political and social tensions. The impacts of layers of conflict extend over the long term on communities, affecting trust, community cohesion and a basic sense of day-to-day safety.

For the past two years, CVT has collaborated with national partners to develop locally-relevant, trauma-informed and effective resilience and rehabilitation initiatives. The project is now coming to a close, and we are recognizing all the amazing work and impacts that made a difference for partners and people who are survivors of torture, conflict-related trauma, and widespread, systematic human rights violations.

It’s very hard to say good bye, but I will remember special moments with the team.”

The Protecting and Promoting Community Resilience (PPCR) project included developing a multi-disciplinary team working in locations in Erbil, Dohuk, Ninewa, Kirkuk and Diyala governorates in Iraq. The team focused on individual, family and community resilience, bringing supportive tools and techniques that help people who were affected by conflict persevere, as well as supporting care providers as they conduct work that is often stressful and emotionally challenging. The team worked with partner organizations to build resilience and capacity, as well as to enhance and expand trauma-informed protection activities. As local partners build their capacity, they are now better able to integrate an understanding of trauma into their work, as well as learning new methods to bolster their resilience as they work with difficult situations and stories from people who have survived deeply traumatic experiences.

The team was made up of psychotherapists, psychosocial counselors, physiotherapists, social workers/case managers, protection specialists, operational experts and administrative professionals. The team worked across disciplines, sharing tools and practices in order to bring specialized skills to partners across these areas of care.

Training has been a key component of this project, helping to bring better understanding to conflict-affected populations regarding the effects of torture and trauma on children and families. And over the course of the project’s two years, the team found that the need for specialized capacity development was greater than anticipated: the severity of individual, family and community trauma meant that the need for mental health specialized care was especially high, particularly related to resilience and rehabilitation.

An important tool the trainers used to build capacity for CVT staff and partners is the trauma resilience workshop (TRW). These two-session, supportive workshops focus on coping skill for adults as well as children and caregivers, exercises designed to reduce the impacts of trauma, parenting strategies for caregivers, methods for helping communities understand stigma surrounding mental health, and helping organizations develop ways to build trust within communities. As part of the process for setting up workshops, the team sought and adapted local input from communities, as well as implementing feedback from participants. This resulted in positive results, with 98% of those who attended TRWs reporting that the workshops helped them better cope with the impacts of trauma on their life.

“Earlier this year, there was a focus group discussion with TRW clients from one of our partners, Green Desert. Two elements stood out for me; firstly, the way that parents spoke about their children had transformed. One parent shared that they have created a special bedtime routine with their child because of the information they learned in the TRW. Another parent shared that their children had made a game out of one of the activities called ‘The Butterfly’ and were teaching it to their siblings and friends,” said Sara Pearce, CVT clinical advisor for mental health. “These two small examples showed me how families find resilience even in difficult circumstances, and that sometimes as clinicians we forget how much one or two interactions can make a difference for those families and communities we are serving.” This project would not have reached as many communities without the dedicated teams of our partners Green Desert and the Jiyan Foundation.

In June 2022, the CVT team opened the Family Center in one of the project cities, a center that will remain in operation even as the PPCR project concludes. The center serves internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the area, as well as the community hosting them, offering specialized group rehabilitation services and TRWs, along with individual support, referrals, safety and stabilization, and community outreach sessions.

The project was meaningful for clients and partners, but also for the team. The CVT Iraq staff were a diverse group, with the majority of the team representing many different communities within Iraq.”

The project was meaningful for clients and partners, but also for the team. The CVT Iraq staff were a diverse group, with the majority of the team representing many different communities within Iraq. Sara Pearce spoke about how the team progressed over the run of the project, saying, “Almost two years ago we came together as a diverse interdisciplinary team, some of us very new to working with trauma survivors. Throughout these two years the team has become a thriving community. I have witnessed all the clinicians take elements of trainings, work with clients and communities and use those elements to support survivors as well as in their own lives.” Sara noted that it was very meaningful to witness this. “None of us are the same people we were when we started, and I know this will continue beyond the PPCR project,” she said. “I am personally in awe of the team’s dedication and hard work, learning as they go and responding to uncertainty.”

There was so much care and learning during this project. As the project comes to its close, here are reflections from the team on the impacts of this project on the communities and on themselves. They worked across multiple locations and disciplines to bring specialized care and tools in support of people rebuilding their lives after conflict and managing the impacts of long-term displacement and life stressors.

What has been most meaningful to you in your work on this CVT project?

“Team work and learning to work with clients.”

“Interdisciplinary work and CVT principles in achieving goals. This kind of work is very unique.”

Saying farewell:

“It’s very hard to say good bye, but I will remember special moments with the team.”

“Thank you CVT for opportunity. We couldn’t complete the journey, but I will be determined to keep moving toward the top of the mountain.”

“I personally had developed during the work with CVT. I will take this knowledge, values and skills to support my community and to advance peace.”

“With community comes connection and I hope that although this current project is ending, the team finds unique ways to stay connected with the lessons they have learned during our time together. The energy that the team have for learning, respect for clients and community, will be transformed into new journeys. I hope that as a team we all find ways to reconnect with the energy from this project and the sense of community spirit.” -Sara Pearce, CVT clinical advisor for mental health

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