In our international projects, our healing work for torture and war trauma survivors is conducted through group counseling. Groups typically meet for 10 weeks. This is the tenth in a series of posts by Veronica Laveta as she follows the counseling group cycle in Jordan. Veronica Laveta is CVT’s clinical advisor for the Jordan project.
Read the previous entry in this series.
In the final session of the counseling group cycle, we provide survivors an opportunity to say a “good goodbye” to the group. With war and displacement, many of them were unable to say goodbye to people they have lost. Also, by reflecting on what they learned from the group and gave to each other, they take these lessons forward with them as their river of life continues. Given all the contextual difficulties for clients, we wondered what would be the fruits of the group? Across the sessions, story after story, what we heard amazed us beyond any of our expectations.
After a discussion on the meaning of goodbyes, the facilitators reviewed the group sessions. Counselors Islam and Wafa wonderfully adapted the review to their group of elderly women who could not read or write, drawing creative symbols for each session (pictured). The facilitators asked the groups what touched them the most and what they would carry with them. Many of the facilitators had been concerned at the beginning of the group cycle about whether the clients would understand the cognitive triangle (“Triangle of Life”) from session two. In fact, survivors identified that the concept of thoughts, feelings and behaviors being connected was incredibly helpful to them, regardless of age, gender or education level.
The survivors mentioned that by actively working to change their thoughts and to make better choices about their behaviors, they significantly improved their well-being and feel empowered to make positive changes in their lives. One survivor used imagery to help him deal with unhelpful thoughts. “The triangle is always in my mind. When I have a negative thought, I call the fire brigade and put water on it straight away.” Some survivors are taking steps to improve their lives. “I’m taking action rather than sitting around and waiting.” Others are controlling their anger so as to not hurt themselves or others or taking steps to improve their health. Several survivors are rediscovering their passions, “It is because of the group, I want to play music again. I am no longer drowning in negativity.”
The skills the survivors learned and practiced in group helped them cope better even in the face of ongoing stressors and losses. “CVT has helped me find more balance in dealing with reality. I just found out my friend was killed in Baghdad and I am sad. But I know I can cope with things that I’m facing.” They are less focused on what they cannot control (such as resettlement) and more energized to take action to make their lives better in the present. Many are doing this by connecting with others. “Previously I faced ‘blackness’ and depression, but now I connect with my wife and go out with my family.” One elderly tribal leader proudly talked about his increased engagement with social media which makes him feel less alone. “I used to have only 15 friends on Facebook. Now I have 500 friends because I started to ’like’ and ‘comment’ more on other people’s posts. I could only do this by changing my thinking about things and trusting more.”
For some, the river of life was the most powerful session. By seeing the pain and joy of the river, they gained a sense of peace and acceptance. “Life is sweet and hard but life continues…” For many others, the difficult moments sessions changed them the most. “The difficult moments session was the best. I was able to say what was in my chest. I realized I am not the only one going through this. I have more perspective now.” Many had been trying to stay strong for their families but the effort at keeping everything in literally made them feel they could not breathe. One man noticed a rejuvenation after he shared his difficult moment, “It has been like oxygen. When we have come here and been able to speak about everything, it has been like breathing fresh air.” They spoke of being released from a burden. “There are things I can speak here that I can’t speak anywhere else. My problems are lighter. Trust has been most important. The weight upon our hearts has become lighter.”
Many of the comments pointed to overall improvement in confidence, hope, strength, inner calm, humor and functioning. “I was always confused and depressed, but this has gotten better. I can focus better, and I have more energy.” We saw increased resilience in the survivors. During the check-in, one man described stressful events from the week before. He was caught working and went to jail where authorities threatened to deport him to Syria. These difficulties did not stop him from laughing and joking throughout the group. He commented, “I feel good to make you laugh. Before, you couldn’t pay me to come, but now I come eagerly for free.”
Shored up dignity and internal strengths were evident in survivors’ smiles and appearance. Most of the survivors dressed up for the last day, and we all enjoyed singing and dancing. One member played the oud, a traditional musical instrument that he had stopped playing due to trauma, while another sighed contentedly, “This is a once in a lifetime experience.”
Beyond the skills that the group members learned, the group support exponentially maximized the benefit. Throughout the sessions, the facilitators encouraged the group members to connect with each other outside of group to add to their “table legs” of external resources. We heard many stories about how they visit each other and call if someone doesn’t come to a session to check on them. Some have coffee after group. Many group members formed “WhatsApp” (a social media tool) groups to communicate and they have plans to continue to meet and visit each other. Although the group was ending in its official form, one survivor suggested we call the last session the “See you soon group” rather than the goodbye group. The survivors have aspirations to gather their resources to lift the burden together as they deal with the many life challenges. One man rallied the others, saying, “We should do something practical together, to bring us to another level.”
Nothing can properly convey the enormity of what it meant to survivors to be accepted for who they are, even after exposing their most vulnerable, pained selves. In one group, two men wept openly at the prospect of saying goodbye as they talked about how the acceptance from the group touched them deeply. One of the other men leaned forward and gently said to them, “Your tears are precious for us” reflecting the warm, embracing culture of the group that allowed men, many who are leaders, a place to be vulnerable. “This is a safe place to cry. I’m more compassionate now. My volcano of tears exploded and no one judged me.” Another man said, “I express myself and people listen. I haven’t been able to cry. Here I was able to cry, and I feel better. Otherwise, I would have exploded inside.” Humor and laughter permeated the serious moments as one man said to others, “You are my brothers from another mother.”
The stories of profound transformation left me the most speechless: Survivors feeling human again, breaking cycles of violence in their homes, challenging their own prejudices and reconciling with those who they perceived as enemies. These changes create ripple effects of hope and healing through families and communities.
Some survivors stated they are different people now as they rediscovered their identity and humanity. One man had been a very convincing voice of discouragement in the beginning, struggling with anger and depression. He recounted, “Before, I felt I was an animal. I just ate and slept. I didn’t trust anyone and wouldn’t talk to anyone, even my remaining family members. Now I talk to my sister. We walk together. My thinking has changed. I can be empathic to others and so can deal with people better. I have more energy.” Another said, “At the beginning, I was nothing. Now I am a person I can be proud of.”
Due to traumatic reactions, the stress of displacement and changing gender roles, many survivors had talked about an increase in their physical aggression towards others, particularly family members. This caused a lot of shame. In the last sessions, an overwhelming number of parents talked about how they have changed and stopped hurting their children and spouses, thereby stopping cycles of violence. Several parents shared, “I want to raise my children right. I have been neglecting them. I want to understand them and give them my best instead of hitting them.”
As we can recall from the first group session, entering a group with people from other religions and nationalities was very scary for survivors. Overcoming their own assumptions against the “other” was a theme we heard in many of the groups. One woman described her journey of transforming her fear and prejudice. “At first I thought she (another group member) was a terrorist! I was afraid of her and avoided walking with her after the group. Now I call her over as soon as I see her and give her a kiss. Imagine what a separation there was between us! Now we love each other.”
One man used the “triangle of life” to change his negative thinking towards other groups. “I used the triangle to change my thoughts about Iraqis and Sabeans and this helped me cure my own discrimination and inability to cope with differences. We are Syrians and Iraqis, we are here together to support each other.” He went on to say that he feels “free as a bird” now that he is less angry and distrusting of others, and he has redirected his anger into wanting to “strengthen the well of goodness in others.” He expressed big aspirations for reconciliation in the region, saying, “We want the Arab world to come together like before and for foreigners to see us other than terrorists.”
An ending wouldn’t be an ending without a visit to the feisty women’s group, the last group on the last day of my time in Jordan. They greeted me warmly, saying, “We are the naughty group.” They demonstrated this throughout the group by singing “racy” lyrics, trying to marry off the facilitators, and making risqué jokes with a wink and a smile. Of course, this laughter was woven through the waves of tears and intense emotion that took us all on the emotional ride. The room was full of hugs and tears as we shared a meal to honor each other and celebrate and to say goodbye. They celebrated in good form, singing, dancing and sharing appreciation of each other. A small, wrinkled Iraqi woman with beautiful eyes and a strong voice started serenading the group with traditional love songs, singing through her sobs. Joy and pain, the splendor of reclaiming dignity and finding voice, the transformative power of love and connection, were all encompassed in this moment. I am tearing up as I write this and remember my heart vibrating with gratitude for all of those who allowed me to be on this voyage with them. Bearing witness to this capacity to tolerate pain, to overcome prejudice, to reach out with love and compassion, and to overcome the most unbelievable adversity transformed me. I am different.