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Stations of Healing in the Middle East

By Islam Al-Aqeel, Resilience Programming Trainer
Published October 3, 2018

Islam Al-Aqeel is psychotherapist/trainer, CVT Syrian Survivors of Torture Initiative. She presented this speech at the Oct. 3, 2018 CVT Restoring Hope Breakfast in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

My name is Islam Al-Aqeel. In 2005, I was a teenage girl, living as any Bedouin Jordanian child lived – with a big family all living at the same house and a lot of children around me playing.

I had a daydream that year that stuck in my mind: I saw myself in America – a big dream for any Bedouin child. I was standing and speaking at an important event, speaking in English in a good way, wearing my traditional Bedouin clothes. And Yes! Here I am! This is what they call it when big dreams come true.

I will take you on my CVT journey by train. The first station is my first year in CVT.

As I finished my Master’s Degree in clinical psychology, I started working with CVT as a psychosocial counselor with survivors who were children, teenagers, adults and the elderly.

I worked with a young Syrian man I will call Jad. He was only early 20s when I met him. He explained how he was captured and severely tortured. The things he told me were so awful, I asked myself, Is this real? I have heard a lot of torture techniques during my professional journey, but I had to wonder how this very slim young boy was still alive? He had lost the ability to walk because of the torture on his brain and neuro system. Surgery helped him walk again, though not perfectly, and he was not able to sit in one position for a long time.

Jad entered our injured men’s group, doing psychotherapy and physiotherapy. This was a group for severely tortured survivors, and I noticed how Jad was engaged in this group. He learned new skills to help with his nightmares and sleep, and physical exercises that helped his legs. He began supporting other men in the group and became able to sleep again and interact with others normally.

I can’t explain the feeling of helping someone so young, and being confident that he will be able to continue his life normally like others!

My train will go now to the second stage a few years later when I was promoted to senior psychosocial counselor. In this stage I worked with more difficult cases. I remember my supervisor at that time, Luca, said: I don’t know if you choose the complicated cases or they choose you?

We worked with an elderly Syrian woman who lost her five sons in the war. She was living alone in Jordan with her grief. I will call her Noor.

Noor came to the sessions afraid; she was not able to go out, to see how other people lived their lives normally with their children. She was extremely desperate and sad.

In her first few sessions, Noor shared with me how her son was sitting up on someone’s shoulders at a protest, and a sniper shot and killed him. He was only 14 years old. This moment was filmed and published on YouTube, and Noor saw it every day – a horrible reminder of how her boy was killed.

I remember telling Luca, I really don’t know what to teach her to cope with all of this. Luca said: You don’t need her to cope quickly like others around her. Her grief is big and may stay forever. You can listen. Listening is a therapy, Islam.

And I noticed how my listening made a change in Noor’s life. She started functioning again. Making connections. Learning new things like sewing. Working in her own small business. Always coming with her smile to our center.

Now my train will stop in the last station: my fifth and sixth years at CVT. I was promoted to a new leadership position as one of the first associate psychotherapist/trainers. CVT was expanding in the Middle East and needed me to work in Turkey and KurdistanIraq. I was very interested, but this was a big decision for the Bedouin family to take.

You see, I realized that CVT is not building a trust relationship with her clients only. It is also with her employees and their families. My family was supportive for this decision because they saw how CVT supported me.

So this Bedouin girl started the next adventure with a first stop in the U.S.A. for orientation, coming to Minnesota in January during the huge snow.

Then I went to Iraq. I worked with communities which had been displaced, persecuted by da’esh (also called ISIS). People were deeply traumatized, but there was little understanding about how mental health works. Women who’d been kidnapped and held by ISIS for three years finally came back, but people did not understand what they were going through. These women acted in ways that made people uncomfortable, appearing afraid and anxious. People said they were just crazy. But I spoke to these women, explaining that I understood and that psychotherapy would help them.

And to help the wider community understand these needs, I conducted psychoeducation sessions to help people understand trauma and psychotherapy. And the sessions worked. After each one, I noticed people coming from their villages to approach us for mental health services.

And most recently, we have been implementing self-care trainings for Syrian psychosocial workers who are helping survivors in southern Syria. These people are surrounded by the traumas of war. We do support and trainings for them and for families and children, bringing them across the border into Jordan.

These people have been living in the middle of trauma for years. The first time I met them, I could smell the war on them. The suffering. I saw it in their faces. I also provide remote self-care training for them during the war, and at one point their village was attacked during the training. But I know that they left the training with more resilience and skills to help them adapt.

For many, it is their first chance to focus on themselves after years of war. We give them space, we listen, and they start to change, to feel more positive: one man told me he bought new clothes for himself for the first time in three years.

The training is shared with other staff after this, and the results are amazing, going out to more than 50 employees in Syria. I can’t explain my energy and feelings after these trainings.

Now my train is here. It will not stop, especially with all of this kindness, support, belief, faith and love.

At the end I just want to say thank you. Thank you for changing many survivors’ lives. Thank you for changing my life too!

Islam Al Aqeel
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Islam Al-Aqeel
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