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 ninth 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 or the next entry in this series.
In session nine, we aim to help survivors reconnect with their dignity and identity and look towards the future. We use the metaphor of a tree that may have had undergone stress and lost leaves and limbs but still remains a tree with strong roots and resilience, sprouting new life. In the second part of the session, we use a “ladder” to help survivors look to the future and set goals, building on the skills they have learned and instilling confidence that they can create a better life for themselves.
In the check-in discussions in the beginning of the 9th session, we saw “sprouts” of encouraging change emerge from the challenging trauma and grief sessions. We saw grief transformed into a source of strength and commitment to moving forward. One woman reflecting on session eight commented, “I still remember my daughter and smell her scent on her clothes. But now it makes me smile, not just cry.”
Another woman was dramatically transformed by having “permission” to not stay trapped in a grieving process that was preventing her from fully living her life. She exclaimed, “I’m tired of grieving, I’m letting go. I went to the hairdresser and had them cut and dye my hair. I wanted a change, not to be stuck in my grief. I sprayed perfume and put on make-up. I want to go on. I’m different now. I laugh. I am much stronger and can move forward with my life. I still miss my mother, but I’ve had enough of being stuck. I say to myself ,‘Whatever has conquered you, you can conquer.’ I may cry still sometimes but that is ok.” With a huge smile and bursting with enthusiasm, she stood up and posed for the group, showing off her new look. All the women applauded and drew inspiration from her.
Of course, the survivors are also facing on-going challenges. With the increase in news coverage of refugees making it to Europe, more are considering moving on despite the risks. One mother despaired that her son might attempt the journey to Europe soon and is very worried. “I don’t want to go but feel I would need to go with him.” As in all the groups, there is room for joy and sorrow and the group supported her in this difficult situation.
To prompt a meaningful discussion using the tree metaphor, our counselors unleashed their endless creativity and artistic flair (pictured), painting illustrative trees with all their brokenness and beauty. One group used a large plant to bring the metaphor alive. They presented a tree that had been broken in places, limbs cut off, dead leaves and scars on the trunk. But the roots went deep into the ground and new leaves and fruit were emerging.
The facilitators led discussions that became quite profound at times, starting with the question “Is the tree still a tree even when it has lost its limbs?” The survivors were quickly able to make the connection from the metaphor to their lives, as one reflected, “This tree resembles us. We are injured, broken in places but still alive with the ability to thrive again.” They identified their roots as what makes them strong and what they carry with them wherever they go: family and ancestors, upbringing, ethics, values, culture and faith. They named patience, good deeds, dignity and identity as the qualities of their trunk, the core of who they are. The survivors recognized that they can reclaim these internal strengths even in a new place with difficult circumstances. Their “fruits” were what they contribute to others: teaching, parenting, spreading good values, giving strength and courage to others as well as accomplishments, or “fruits of their efforts.” Many facilitators asked the survivors, “What kind of tree are you?” One woman replied with a smile, “I am a date tree, the roots and trunk are strong and the fruits are healthy and beneficial to others.”
In these conversations I could see the survivors shed some of the pain and shame that bent their trees. Their posture straightened and their faces blossomed as they restored their dignity by connecting with their resilient and generous essences. The survivors resonated with the hopefulness of the metaphor and commented on the new leaves and branches growing on the tree. One woman remarked, “It is going to regrow. It is like a human, it falls and grows again.” Another said, “I can make my dreams happen anywhere, no matter what has happened.”
The facilitators transitioned to talking about goals as a way to “grow fruits.” The facilitators first had to clarify the difference between unrealistic dreams that they may not have much control over (such as resettlement or being able to go back to Syria) and short term goals they could accomplish and make their lives better no matter where they are. They identified a goal at the top of the ladder, and then the facilitators instructed them break down the goal into small achievable steps. To help support success, the facilitators asked, “Who supports you?” to remind them of external resources and “What if a step is broken?” to help them think about overcoming potential obstacles.
In the teen girls group, the girls recognized the benefit of focusing on goals even though they may want to eventually be resettled in another country. One reflected, “We want to be resettled in the U.S. but don’t know when that will happen. I want to make the best of my time here.” They set goals of continuing their education, studying music, learning English and learning to cook. In a men’s group, one of the men made a drawing of everyone’s goals, symbolically represented as if they were climbing a mountain together, supporting each other along the way.
In sessions eight and nine, we saw a collective shift. Those in session four who could not see any future for themselves are now seeing new sprouts — the new life that is possible. One man referred to the river, “Just as the river keeps flowing…life continues.” He made the point that since life continues he may as well try to influence his future, setting goals to create more “moments of joy” on his river. I could feel the energy generated as survivors were moving from paralysis and despair to action, taking back the power that was taken away from them and once again becoming agents of change in their lives. Dignity reclaimed is a spectacular sight.