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 sixth 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 the series.
In order for all the participants to be able to share their distressing memory, the counselors facilitate “difficult moments” sessions over two meetings. We nervously wondered how survivors coped in between sessions. Not only were they dealing with difficult moments in sessions, they were also dealing with additional external challenges that affected their overall emotional landscape. The recent media pictures of a refugee toddler washed up to shore triggered strong emotional reactions, as did the news of waves of people trying to reach Europe. As conditions in Jordan become more desperate, many have started to wonder if they should try to make the journey to Europe. We are eternally grateful for our social workers who worked with the survivors during this time to help them to access resources to make their lives in Jordan easier.
The counselors asked the people who had shared the week before how they felt. The survivors described a range of experiences– some felt their symptoms worsened at first but then were able to use their coping strategies and eventually felt lighter and freer of the weight that they had been carrying inside. Comments included, “There is some kind of happiness now that wasn’t there before.” “When I spoke I felt relieved. This thing in my chest has now been released.” “It was a hot session. I stayed bothered for two days and then I said to myself ‘finished.’ I want to live for the moment. I want to live for the day.” “I felt the pain come out of me and I feel better even though at first I didn’t want to talk.” As in many points in the group cycle where we have been holding our breaths, we were able to breathe a little more easily hearing how survivors had benefitted.
As we have mentioned before, survivors are also attending physiotherapy. I chatted with physiotherapist Kamal about the progress he was seeing in the survivors. He made an interesting observation: “I noticed that the survivors who had not yet processed their traumatic memories were much more agitated as they had not released the power of the trauma from their bodies. The ones who had processed seemed more comfortable and stable even though they were tired.”
Those who had been adamant that they would never share their painful stories were inspired by the reports from their fellow group members. One woman had not participated much during the group, but her body language showed her distress. She finally told the story of her husband being killed. This was the first time she had released her emotions connected to this incident. The group members were riveted. They showed support through their body language, leaning in and being with her fully with their presence and caring.
Counselor Randa reflected on this experience. “At the end, I felt we needed to hold hands. I needed it. It helped us all feel the connection to each other and the support. I then had them say something positive and this lightened the mood. This story affected me a lot. As a mother, I felt her pain of losing her husband and now having to manage by herself with young kids in a foreign country.”
In the same group, Mohammed talked about his emotions hearing the story of a mother who witnessed a soldier threatening to harm her son. “The stories affect me much more now than they once did since I am now married and may have children soon. It makes me think about what it would be like to have someone hurt my son.” After all the intense stories, Randa and Mohammed facilitated a lovely end to the group, having them reflect on how they felt. The women noticed how they felt better. “I took support instead of pain today.” “We came here and took everything inside of us out, and we feel much better.” The women smiled and beamed as they expressed their gratitude and appreciation for being encouraged and supported through this difficult journey. They chatted and laughed as they left.
I had learned that Wafa and Ruba’s group had a challenging situation in session five where one woman had some difficulties due to a health problem and the intensity of the session. The other women and facilitators gave their care to this woman, and once she felt better she wanted to tell her story. As for many, this was the first time she was able to speak about what happened to her. In session six, she thanked the group members. “This is a beautiful group, thank you for all the attention and care for me. People called me to check up on me. It felt good.” She had not been functioning well due to her depression and she reports she is now getting out of the house and making connections with others. Wafa commented, “She looks so much better. Her face is completely different. She is optimistic somehow.” Ruba noted, “The children see the difference in her. She is spending time with her children now. If she is napping, they wake her up and say, ‘It is time for group’ because they see how much the group is helping her.”
With exuberance, Wafa shared what this work means to her. “I feel so good. This is why we do this work, seeing this change. It’s like magic. Something changes within us. I feel so grateful for God to allow me to do this work. I just want to hug everyone.” Wafa’s vicarious resilience lifted me up after two weeks of incredibly difficult stories.
We resist hearing these stories survivors bring. The survivors themselves, counselors, psychotherapist trainers, me– we all have a natural instinct to want to turn away from the worst of the worst of these stories. One common theme throughout the cycle is “We are in this together.” We are all working to overcome our collective avoidance and to support each other to have the strength to face these realities. These weeks have shown repeatedly that by breaking through our fears, we can see the beauty again. I was struck by the many times I heard the word “beautiful” from the survivors and facilitators. Seeing the relief on the survivors’ faces after they overcame their deepest fears to “speak the unspeakable” and how they supported each other was truly beautiful.