Islam Al-Aqeel is a resilience programming trainer with CVT’s Survivors of Torture Initiative (SOTI), Incubator for Defenders Remaining in Exile (IDREAM), and Adaptive Resilience for Civil Society project (ARC). She has also worked with CVT’s teams in Jordan and Iraq and has helped shaped new justice and resilience initiatives around the globe.
I have a memory of my early years at CVT, when I worked with the child of a missing father. One day I was in my office and I thought of him. I suddenly wanted to talk to his mother to make an appointment. At that moment, the CVT receptionist called me and said his mother was downstairs. It was a strange and immediate connection. His mother told me, “Please, he wants to go back to Syria – he was running away from our home and I convinced him to come and see you.” I remember I entered the therapy room and the child just hugged me and cried. He said “Why does everyone have a father, but not me?”
It’s been many years but I still hold this memory. That boy went on with his life, and I went on at CVT, moving from counseling work with survivors, to resilience and justice-related work with survivors and families who have missing loved ones. But after these years, I still remember that moment with that young boy. It really broke my heart.
I have now been with CVT for ten years. Over time, I’ve heard of much suffering; I’ve heard so many details from families about their missing ones. And I have also heard of great hope, great resilience.”
I have now been with CVT for ten years. Over time, I’ve heard of much suffering; I’ve heard so many details from families about their missing ones. And I have also heard of great hope, great resilience.
When I was a psychology student I was specifically interested in trauma healing or working with torture survivors. When I graduated and started my Master’s degree, and I began looking for an opportunity to work as psychologist. This was always my dream. I knocked at every door because it was so difficult to find a job in Jordan, especially as a woman by myself. At that time, technology was newer and I didn’t have a computer or internet. I only had my curriculum vitae (CV) in my hands. Each day from morning until night, I looked for opportunities.
After some time, I heard about the Center for Victims of Torture and brought my CV to them. I remember the person in human resources asked me to email it to them, but I only had the paper copy. Luckily, she took this and encouraged me to apply online, which I then did! I was invited to a five-hour interview. I was nervous and spent a lot of time practicing my English. But I passed and got the job. I was so happy to get this offer! This was the work I wanted to do and the salary was something that would change my life and my family’s life.
From here, my journey started. 31 March 2013 was my first day at the CVT Jordan office in Amman. I trained on CVT’s model for group counseling, intake assessments, individual sessions and follow-ups. I had previously worked as a volunteer with Syrian refugees, especially children, at the Za’atari refugee camp, and I always felt connected to Syria spiritually. So I appreciated this chance to work with Syrians as well as Iraqis, and I saw how CVT’s model worked so well with survivors. I made good progress with clients. After I worked with this model for some time, I took the next step to train new counselors in effective use of the model.
In 2017, I had two dreams that turned out to be prophetic in a way that still surprises me. First, I had a dream I was living in Turkey and having a coffee in a little café. Of course, I had never traveled in my life; I had never seen anything outside Amman. And then in a second dream, I was again in Turkey walking and seeing the sights, though I had never seen this place before.
I didn’t think much about these dreams, but in a short time a job opened at CVT to work with a new program called Survivors of Torture Initiative (SOTI), with a focus on resilience, mental health and multiple forms of advocacy. The role would involve travel to Turkey and training of partner organizations who were serving Syrian refugees. I wasn’t sure what my family would think of this, because it’s not common for Bedouin women like me to travel for work. But I really felt like I had a sign from those dreams and needed to give it a try.
I spoke to my father and told him of my interest. I said I wasn’t sure I would be considered but wanted his approval. My father told me, “Don’t worry. I’m with you to go and apply. And of course I will fight for your dreams and for what you like.”
So I applied and got the job as psychotherapist trainer to work with partners in South Turkey, in Gazientep. I think I’m one of the first Arab female expats to start work on this CVT expansion project. Once I had the position, I had to convince my mother and other family members this was the right thing for me. Not everyone was happy. But my father said, “I trust my girl; I want to help make her dreams come true. CVT is her family. She’s been with them five years and she always gets support, and she changed herself – she changed our lives. So we are supporting her.”
So I began the new role. And one day when I was working in Gazientep, I found it: the café from my dream! It was exactly as I dreamed, even though I had never before seen anything outside Amman.
The new job was challenging, including that when I started I was not able to do the trainings in person because of instability in the region. So I started to find new ways to deliver the training. I was the only trainer at that time, so I felt very responsible. I felt that I wanted to never let CVT and my colleagues down because I was selected for this. I kept moving ahead, leading and launching the project through the difficult time for CVT.
In this new role, we are doing capacity building for civil society organizations, and we’re integrating healing with justice – this is how we support people to also get accountability.”
In this new role, we are doing capacity building for civil society organizations, and we’re integrating healing with justice – this is how we support people to also get accountability. We help people advocate for their stories, for their traumas. Through this program, we’ve moved from being a mental health center to a human rights organization, integrating our mental health knowledge to include justice and advocacy. I appreciate that we continue to look for different approaches to really help and improve the healing journey for survivors of torture and trauma.
This brings me to my best moment at CVT: giving a major speech. This was a dream that became a reality. In 2018, I traveled to the U.S. to give a speech for CVT’s annual Restoring Hope Breakfast. This was a highly remarkable moment for me. I told my story: I spoke about my background as a Bedouin and a counselor, and about survivors I have worked with. The speech was well received – a dream come true.
Another remarkable experience in my ten years at CVT has been seeing how survivors change. One survivor told me she loved singing, but then she stopped after her truly traumatic and tortured experience. But then after therapy she sang at one of the sessions. That really touched my heart to see the change. Another remarkable thing was seeing a client who became pregnant after she had been unable for so long, as well as a client who went back to drawing after coming for care. These details always stayed with my heart.
I too have had milestones during my time at CVT and I celebrate everything in my life with CVT: graduating with my Master’s degree, getting a car, getting a new position, getting married. I have changed over these years. I was always connected to freedom and my community, so I think I became more powerful from working with survivors who faced so much difficulty. It reflects on you. For example, I feel I can face any challenge in life because I learn from their resilience.
Today I advocate for where I want to be and what I want to work toward, and I have lived alone as a female, which is not something familiar for Jordanian women, Bedouin women, at least for my clan.
In my time at CVT, I have changed how I listen, how I support. But mainly, in these years I’ve become an advocate: I advocate for my rights, I advocate for my dreams, I fight for it. Survivors have helped me with this. And another thing is financial. If you get financially stable, that will help you to power because in our countries, a woman can have some power if she is financially stable and can pay for herself.
In the last 10 years I was always working, reading, studying and trying to really work on myself and to succeed, but of course you need an environment that helps you to do this. I feel CVT is was one of the environments. I got to meet colleagues, supervisors from different countries, from different regions, and then when I started to travel I was exposed to different traditions, countries, rituals. I learned so many things beyond the technical work, things related to the country, the context.
Though this work is difficult and you expose the difficulties in this world as you are doing the work, at the same time you have meaning in what you did and what you saw.”
At CVT, we have made it through many challenges, too. We started this new model in new locations and partner offices, and then we had the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, we had a horrific earthquake. This happened in Gaziantep, and CVT staff and I were on the ground during this event. This is a life-changing experience. After witnessing this earthquake, I asked myself, was I supposed to die at that moment? When you witness this in one minute, you start to think, Yes I’m alive – would I change anything, do I regret anything in my life in before?
And I thought, No. I appreciate the minutes and the moments that I’ve lived, the hard ones and the bitter and the nice ones. Though this work is difficult and you expose the difficulties in this world as you are doing the work, at the same time you have meaning in what you did and what you saw.