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Staff Insights

Turning the Lights Back on for Torture Survivors

Published April 20, 2016

Islam Al-Aqeel is a senior psychosocial counselor at CVT Jordan.

When I work with torture survivors during CVT’s 10-week group counseling cycle, I watch how much they change. I remember one woman who came to sessions only wearing black, very quiet. She told me she had no hope for a future life. But over the weeks, I saw her finding strength. She began participating; she spoke with the others in her group, offering them support. She even started wearing colors. When she came to CVT one day wearing a bright, colorful scarf, I knew her life had changed. She told me, “You put the hope back inside.”

Moments like these are among the most rewarding aspects of my work at CVT. I have the opportunity to see so many clients begin taking care of themselves, their children and families. After they have been powerless, they bring back their lives. From the beginning of my career, I’ve wanted to help people make these kinds of changes.

I received my degree in psychology and my masters in clinical psychology from Jordan University and started out working in a hospital with adult clients, focusing on schizophrenia cases. I also began volunteering in the Za’atari camp in northern Jordan, working with Syrian refugees, including children.

I began using play therapy in my work with traumatized children in the camp, incorporating games – activities with music, playing “kitchen,” using a doll house. We would let the children play freely and then reflect on the play. I might say, “Imagine you are on a train. Now stop the train. Where is that place? Do you feel safe? Is there an exit or not? Who’s there with you? Do you have any uncomfortable feelings?” I let them know they can always go back to a safe place. I brought this knowledge to my work at CVT.

At CVT, it is a really different experience working with men, women and children. I have the chance to help clients of all ages strengthen and change. I see CVT as a place where I can build myself and gain a lot of knowledge. When I started, I was on a mobile team and spent nine months working with Syrians. I gained experience in group therapy and individual therapy, but also in self-care as a therapist. This is important because of the stories we hear from clients, the impact that listening to difficult details of torture can have on counselors.

My first year at CVT was about gaining knowledge, working with CVT’s clinical manual and working with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) clients. My second year, I began working in Amman and had the chance to work with Iraqis, which gave me a different experience and new information. So my second year at CVT felt like I started gaining a lot of knowledge.

Now in my third year, I get to be creative – new ideas, teachings, relevant trainings. I’ve been promoted to senior psychosocial counselor, which has given me motivation. I saw that CVT appreciates my hard work. I now have a lot of responsibility, and I develop my experience in our sessions every day.

Torture rehabilitation takes a lot of patience and time. We help survivors look inside themselves, regain their identity. For many, their dignity has been lost to the conditions they face. We help them feel they have a safe space where they can develop trust and the ability to look inside and reflect. They rebuild their dignity and identity through this process. Sometimes we need to encourage them to look for themselves and discover their own strength: for example, they still get up every day and come here. They have something that pushes them. I remind them that they are their own being. I help them with their image of their own inner self; at CVT we focus not just on the bad experiences but on their strength.

I also learn a lot from my clients’ strength and stories. They add a lot of meaning to my life. Over my three years in group counseling, I’ve worked with men, women and children’s groups.  And we also have specialized groups: groups for injured men, groups for women with babies. At first, my role was to observe; I noticed the way the survivors build relationships with each other, how they help each other. As facilitators, we encourage this group support. Building trust between group members is very important.

Working with children is different from other types of therapy. It’s not easy. You have to talk about hope, a future. But many of the children in these situations don’t feel it. So we work on creating a safe place and planting the idea of hope. We teach them many techniques like breathing exercises and creating their own safe place. We use puppets and storytelling to help them understand more about their feelings and how to cope with them.

With adults, many of them are focused on loss: all that they had built in their professional lives, all the many material things they had. They lost everything. And they lost loved ones. At least three clients in my last group had lost family members. With these clients, we work on grief. We work on how they can live with their loss.

As counselors, we also work to help clients have respect for us, and we show them our respect and our ability to listen to them, their opinions and experience. Clients come from differing backgrounds: many clients are highly educated – engineers, writers, doctors. I find that I have to build respect, especially with older male or female clients. Hearing things from a young lady like me is not always easy, and I feel really proud to see them reflect on the session, practice the exercises that I gave them. I feel proud when they say “Thank you” to me.

I see the clients change from the first to the last session. For example, in the Injured Men’s group, I saw so many had lost their self-image – this disappeared with the loss of the hand or the leg. So we work on dignity. We use metaphors to help their understanding of their loss. The clients also do physiotherapy exercises. It is so surprising to see that even the injured clients can do the exercises, in so many cases even with the missing leg, the lost arm.

Another great experience with groups is when I notice how motivated my clients are, how they support each other. They know how to do this. Our groups are multi-generational, so we have males in their 20s, 30s, all the way up their 60s. We had a man who was 79 years old in a group that had young men in their 20s. At first, there were struggles in a recent group, but the clients did not drop out. Instead they worked on questions that arose from their differing ages and backgrounds. I saw how each person learned how to deal with the others. They had rich discussions and supported each other. This was a new experience for me. I learn something from every group.

Each counseling group has its own needs. Some groups have clients whose daily functioning is severely affected. Some groups have individuals with different religions. We talk about how they feel about religion in a way that encourages them to support each other and work to understand differences. Each has something different to say and to learn. And for each session, I learn from every client and watch the change.

Sometimes the clients keep meeting with each other after the counseling cycle has ended – meeting on the same day, at the same time. One group even named their Whatsapp group the same name as their counseling group. They use this tool to continue the connection. To continue the support. A former client told me after the counseling cycle ended, that one client told another she was feeling heavy, and the other client reminded her of the breathing exercises.

There is so much change by the end of the cycle. At the beginning, I know some clients want to end their lives. One client told me “We were so depressed, so frustrated.” By the end of the 10-week cycle, they feel that their life has come back. A client told me I turned the lights back on.

And some feel like a surprise to me. I worked with one client who had been raped. At the first session, she looked powerless, wearing all black. She didn’t smell well. But now I remember her at the good-bye session. She had a new hair color, she smelled good. She said “Before CVT, I just wanted to sit at home in a dark room. I couldn’t stand to hear people talking.” Now her outlook was completely changed. At the last session, she brought all the books we had used in key sessions. She had kept everything. She said “The support of this group gave me hope. I was raped. I didn’t want to go on. Then I discovered I should stay strong and take care of myself.”

These are the moments that are rewarding for me. I am glad to be able to work with so many clients, perhaps especially with elderly women or men clients. I found myself more with these individuals in our counseling groups. I remember when I was a child, I always loved to sit and chat with elderly, and I have this passion from a long time ago. But at CVT, I develop more skills to understand them more. I remember my supervisor told me it would be helpful to put myself in their age to understand them more, and I found this really helpful to understand them more and help them more. CVT is the place where I build myself. I am happy to have the opportunity to meet such great supervisors with different skills and experience, and to have great college support. All this helps me to develop.

Funding for CVT’s work in Jordan is provided by the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration and the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture.

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