Noor Al-Sagher is a tele-mental health therapist/trainer with the Survivors of Torture Initiative, and is here writing about her previous work with CVT Jordan.
Author’s note: This blog post is about Sami, a character whose story appears in the clinical manual we use at CVT in our group sessions with pre-adolescent clients. I chose to write this piece from the perspective of a child because over years of providing therapy, I have observed that sometimes counselors believe it will be too challenging to work with children, because they assume that children cannot express their feelings or engage with the therapeutic process. Based on my experience of working with various children, I hope to give an inside view of the process from the child’s perspective, and show what this can look like so that counselors feel more motivated to do this rewarding work.
My name is Sami. I am 12 years old. I was born in a place far away from here. My years were divided into two: half at home and the other half in exile. I spent only six years at home, but they were very important years that shaped my life today. I feel older than I really am. I don’t think about playing and having fun with my friends, or even about going to school because of my family’s new situation. My family cannot provide my basic needs anymore.
I chose to write this piece from the perspective of a child because over years of providing therapy, I have observed that sometimes counselors believe it will be too challenging to work with children, because they assume that children cannot express their feelings or engage with the therapeutic process.”
I spent a year of my life in a camp. The experience was no better than the war experience, which has left inside me a feeling of loss and more – physical pain that is too old for my age. It took some time for my family to feel that I was going through a crisis and needed help. My schooling started to suffer; I had physical pain and I couldn’t sleep well at night. I didn’t realize that these problems were a reflection and an outcome of what I’d been through over the years, which seem so far away now.
It wasn’t easy facing life and society again. I had to go back to school after years of dropping out, and try to fit in with new schoolmates and a new neighborhood. Also for my mother, the “new Sami” wasn’t fitting her ambitions anymore. I wasn’t an A student anymore, and I stopped being an active and independent boy. My mother thought it would be good to receive counseling especially after her failed attempts to help me during her own time of need.
I wasn’t convinced at the beginning and I was worried and untrusting. Will these sessions help me? But under constant pressure from my mother and school teacher, I decided to start this journey.
I felt strange when I first went to CVT. I talked about my story for the first time. I didn’t get into details, but still it wasn’t easy talking to a stranger about my experience. What was helpful at this stage was that my counselor helped me understand some of the symptoms that I had struggled with for a long time. That is when I found out that I was normal and that the circumstances I was going through were abnormal. That was the first time I realized that all the exhaustion and a lot of my problems were connected with my mental health. It was an interesting idea that I wasn’t sick. It was important for me to understand these things. It was also important for my family and my teacher to understand these things. I felt there was a change after my mother attended the parenting sessions prior to me going into group therapy. My mother’s opinion changed and her whole perspective changed about the circumstances my family and I are living.
So I joined a CVT pre-adolescent group. In the first session, I entered a room with a group of kids my age but from different countries. I had some concerns about fitting in, as I had a hard time making friends in class. The therapists started talking in order to break the ice. We started simple introductions and we talked about our expectations and goals. Then things started becoming clearer, but I wasn’t ready to share yet. After that I started observing more than I had been earlier. Then it became interesting. I started to ask myself questions: Will a group of children be able to make a difference in my life? Will being with people who have experienced similar circumstances to ours push us forward?
The therapist started talking about a kid who lived through the war. Right away, I immediately felt that I was listening to a story that was very similar to mine, but it was being told by another person. I wasn’t alone! A lot of the other kids and their parents had lived through the same thing.
The therapist started talking about a kid who lived through the war. Right away, I immediately felt that I was listening to a story that was very similar to mine, but it was being told by another person. I wasn’t alone!”
In the second session, we did a breathing exercise we had learned together in the previous session. I was still distracted during the exercise, but it was easier than the first time we did it. Talking about feelings wasn’t something we did in our family, and today I had this unique opportunity to express my feelings. I learned that fear and anger are normal and not weaknesses, and that there are deeper feelings and that they impact our bodies too. Alongside the counseling sessions I also attended a physiotherapy group, and this was really helpful as I learned that my difficult feelings were stored for all these years in different parts of my body.
During the third session the therapist told us a story which illustrated the difficulties that we can face being in a new society and new school. She spoke about internal and external sources of support, and how within our difficult circumstances, our ability to identify these sources gets weak. I felt the strength of the closing exercise that day. There were different supportive but hidden feelings in the group. I learned we can start over together.
With weeks going by, I started doing exercises at home, sometimes with family and friends. We enjoyed doing them together. During the fourth session, it was nice to know that there are ways to control your thoughts and feelings through an exercise that helps you become more aware and more in control. It doesn’t always work and it’s not a magic trick, but I learned that paying attention to how we talk to ourselves is helpful.
We crossed the fifth session, called The River. It’s not a traditional river. It was the river of my life, an exercise that showed us how to see our lives as if they were a river through time. Without going into detail, it might look easy but in reality, it wasn’t. We looked back on our river at the places, people, early childhood, past and present that are difficult. We looked at an unknown future.
On the sixth week, I felt sad because I couldn’t go. It was the second session for caregivers only. I asked my mother to be go and to tell me what happened during the session. She came back with lots of things to share about the past weeks and what we would be doing together in the future sessions. It was a sensitive period and it required joint efforts. I told her, “I think I am ready to face what’s coming. Maybe I’m scared a little, but I am confident.”
The seventh session was an individual session with my counselor, and we talked about the river of my life. She wanted me to take a closer look at my river and the rocks that I placed for each bad memory, and also the flowers I placed for the happy memories. I chose to look at the most difficult moment, the one that completely changed the course of my river. I drew the event and the people, the place, everything around me. Then I talked about my feelings about the event and about my thoughts and people around me. It wasn’t easy. I remembered feelings and sounds I thought were gone. My hand shivered while I was drawing, my voice changed. I wanted to cry. I wanted to run away. But I knew this was helpful and that I was in a safe place so I kept going, doing some breathing exercises to help me calm down when I needed to.
In the next session we were together again as a group. It felt good to see my friends. This session was about loss. It seemed difficult at first, but what made it easier was that the counselor again told a story about someone else. Somehow it was easier to talk about our own feelings through focusing on the story. I enjoyed sharing with the group where I saw myself. Yes, we are together standing the same distance away from loss. We will set sail in the river without our loved one. It might sound hard, but I knew today that they’re in a place far away and we might never see them again, but what they gave us will stay with us for a long time.
In the next session, we started thinking about the future. We imagined ourselves as trees with strong trunks and producing delicious fruits! It was good to do this with our caregivers, who really are the most important resources in our lives.
The session before the last was the final caregiver session. I felt differently about these sessions than I did at the start. I saw that my parent being involved had been a good thing. It drew us closer together as a family, and helped us realize that each of us is important within our home.
Finally, we came to the goodbye session. I haven’t always been able to say goodbye to those who I’ve lost, but here I am facing a goodbye. Is saying goodbye really important? I had lots of mixed emotions: pride, happiness to see the group grow and change, and also sadness about the unique opportunity coming to an end. In this session our caregivers were with us. I heard my mother say lots of good things about me, and that she was proud of how I’ve changed. I shared my feelings with the group and told them how I felt about them. I made friendships that were built upon similarity and mutual support.
Although the group ended, I also felt like it was a beginning. A new start. I will face difficulties in the future, but there’s always hope.
Although the group ended, I also felt like it was a beginning. A new start. I will face difficulties in the future, but there’s always hope.”