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For those who have suffered torture, oppression and war
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MESSAGES OF HOPE
From the counsellors and psychotherapists of
The Trauma Foundation South West:
For those who have suffered torture, oppression and war
by Lynn Linsdale and Judy Ryde
Illustration and design by Wendy Hoile
These ‘messages of hope’ are written by the Tfsw counsellors and psychotherapists who work with asylum seekers and refugees who have suffered torture, oppression and war. They are written to honour the courage and wisdom of their clients, many of whom have struggled over months and years to find some peace and strength to start to live again rather than merely exist. All have experienced and witnessed terrible things and have lost dearly loved relatives and friends as well as their homeland and culture.
The first session
When we first met I was really aware of how different we look from each other; me with brunette hair and freckly white skin in western clothing and you in traditional Islamic dress with a dark complexion. For this reason, I think we were both glad to turn to the interpreter to help us get to know each other. He was very able to do this and I was fascinated to hear him speaking your language as well as breaking into English, now and then, while talking to you when he was being particularly empathetic. For instance, in response to one of your comments he said to you “that’s terrible” and then turned to me to explain your thoughts as well as point out the cultural meaning. Interestingly, I believe he now thinks in English as he has lived here for a long time and this shows when he is moved by your words because he seems to forget your language even though you share the same cultural upbringing.
All three of us seemed to find using ‘the heart,’ as a metaphor, an excellent way to describe universal, sad feeling states but it was the way you used your Shash (head scarf) to help express yourself that really caught my eye. To explain more, when we first met you clutched it under your chin as you shyly smiled at me. Then immersed in telling me the story of witnessing your family being killed, you pulled it forward to partially obscure you face and wipe away your tears. At the end of the session you confidently threw it to the back of your head whilst surprising and delighting me as you reached forward to shake my hand goodbye.
Now you live in Britain the threat of knowing you could be killed at any moment has passed. Unfortunately, this is still a belief which is very much alive and trapped in your mind so you can never relax. Although it was only our first session, I thought it was important that you went away with a sense that some of your worries could be seriously addressed and that’s why we discussed the reason for still feeling terrified of being captured and attacked. We talked of how it stems from being subjected to previously traumatic experiences. In the weeks that follow, when we work together, I am hoping you will recognise that the menacing voice that lives in your head and persecutes you can be confronted with a firm retort that disconfirms its power. Time is on our side now that you have Leave to Remain in Britain and I think our first session bodes well for working together in the future
To her Supervisor, Jeremy Woodcock
As Amaka finished working with me during a time when you were away, I am writing to you as a means to reflect upon my work with her and to thank you for your input into her vastly improved mental health.
When I first met Amaka I was immediately aware of a number of factors which indicated I had entered into a client’s mental landscape so fragile, so troubled and distressed that I frankly wondered how I could manage to cope, let alone help her. This was shocking for me because my life and work experience indicates I am no stranger to the world of psychosis and the terrors that face many asylum seekers and refugees.
Within minutes of seeking your help, as my supervisor, I began to feel I was not such a hopeless therapist and that anyone would struggle given the level of assistance needed for this client. A group effort was called for and with the support of other mental health professionals who valued the work of the Foundation; together with your experience gleaned from years of working with victims of torture and trauma, the possibility of recovery for Amaka became possible. The now stable, charismatic and incredibly powerful community person she is, gives me such pleasure. fulfilled when you joined a church community here in Britain.
I think you know I have admired your courage to try and help yourself by learning to speak English so well and by embracing a new way of living and being, primarily for the sake of your children. This is especially so when life here can seem so different, bewildering and more accessible to your teenage children who have taken to it like ducks to water. No doubt, there will still be difficult decisions to be made and discussions about your future to be had and I am touched that you choose to share them with me instead of managing alone.
It’s good to hear from you and to know that you’re making new friends in Manchester. I guess it must be at least six months since you burst into the room, threw yourself into my arms, telling me you had been granted Leave to Remain here. I am sorry too that we had to finish our work together so quickly after receiving this good news.
I can understand why you are still concerned about your memory not working like it used to before your life was turned upside down. When I look back on our work together, I think putting your life events into some sense of sequential order turned out to be a very important exercise. This seemed to bring back a sense of your old self, which helped you cope much better with ordinary tasks like taking care when crossing a road or encouraging you to make your own meals. The effects of us being together were not just about managing practical living skills; I also became aware of you as an intelligent and deeply courageous person desperately wanting to bring back some life force to everyday living.
Bearing all this in mind and in an effort to give you written evidence of what has happened to you when your memory fails; I have cobbled together a few details which may help.
You were content living in the bush by the side of a river, tending your crops and animals just as people have probably done for thousands of years. This natural rhythm of life was suddenly swept away in an instant when your loving family, along with most of the villagers, were killed by soldiers. You may have escaped with your life but how were you to cope after suffering appalling mental and physical abuse and being left for dead? You had never been out of the village or even seen a car. Fate seems to have always dealt you just a modicum of luck here and there, enough indeed to get you to the coast, stow you away in the dark hold of a boat and find you a family who spoke your language to take you in after arriving in England. Apart from feeding and housing you they also knew you needed someone who could hear your fears and constant nightmares. I am very glad they brought you to me.
Cry, like the Spring Rain
was suddenly still:
the sound of your voice;
rubble earth formed a crust,
Cry, like the spring rain,
like the birds that cut the dusk:
call to me, I am listening, I am listening.
Lifted from the ruin of the house -
his lungs fluttered like a moth
in a silk cocoon:
He was blue
Until he cried out
but his mother’s hush
doesn’t quiet him now.
that beneath the beams of the roof,
the dust that spreads over her,
beneath our Bibibaff carpet,
our sleeping rooms,
she feasts on mulberry -
spins her silk-
and when the moths rush the window
press our hands to the glass.
by Kim Hastings
Stories of Endurance and Hope
The following are stories from our work with traumatised asylum seekers and refugees. All clients have given permission for their stories to be told but details have been changed to protect their identity.
Khalid is 30 years old -
We talk of practical things, we distance and separate, Khalid’s body pain is now in the room demanding attention.
Assessment 1, Kahlid continued
It feels impossible, unbearable, multifaceted. I find myself looking at him directly and saying that when people are tortured, when we are attacked in that way, it is not just your body and your mind which is attacked but your soul is as well. Again I feel our three presences in the room basking, momentarily in a truth that has been allowed to be spoken. I look at Khalid as he returns my look, meeting me, being met in that moment, I sense the pain leave his body as he relaxes and trusts in that truth in that moment. It does not last long and the pain must return but now hope is in the room, it feels to me in all of us.
This is the vulnerable heart of our meeting. We have allowed ourselves to look and to honour something which now has to be wrapped up and placed aside. We do not have the time and space now, to go on looking and wondering about how Khalid’s soul/self may be safely reintegrated.
I have to let him go with as much gentleness and strength I am able to have. I can ask that he go on our list as priority, but the list is 6 months long and lengthening. I am deeply touched, but do I have a right to conjure hope at such a distance? Whose need is being met? My sense is that hope does not belong to me -
Zakaria is 30 years old. Like many, his hope has sunk deep within him, but still seems to sit waiting, wanting to be seen, to rise to the surface. He can’t recall anyone speaking to him of trauma and what his symptoms may be trying to express. He is strongly medicated, tranquillised: maybe his fear and pain would otherwise express themselves as anger and rage. He is in what feels like a straitjacket of chemically induced dissociation. This is a man who seems to have been alone for a long time. I have a struggle to stay emotionally present in the room with him. I sense the interpreter’s unwavering compassion as an anchor.
Similar movements of meeting happen between us, albeit slower and heavier and harder to stay with. His hope is more hidden, less urgent, maybe less hopeful of being seen, more needing to be found? He is heavy lidded, hidden, curled in on himself, where Khalid glittered with pain, Zakaria is dulled, extinguished.
I find it easier to part from him, he does not feel so urgent, I have not over stepped the limits of our meeting. I am left wondering, is either man’s hope more urgent? Khalid’s, which feels like a young child, reaching out, eager to be snatched from the edge, or Zakaria’s, who feels more like an old man hanging over the edge, clinging so tightly he dare not raise his eyes, let alone reach out for help.
Rose’s path through life has taken her through unspeakable horrors including deeply wounding betrayals and attacks on her body, to bearing the loss of family, culture and community, to struggling to come to understand an alien culture whose rules and values are a mystery to her. Through all this she has fulfilled her family’s dearest wish of bringing her children safely into a successful adult life. Sharing this painful and often puzzling journey with her has been an honour and a privilege.
Samir is in his late thirties; he is tall, thin and very dark skinned. His handsome face is hollow and drawn. He stoops but is impeccably dressed. He sits carefully and rests one slightly misshapen hand in his other.
Over the following sessions we begin to uncover his story. He was at University in his country. He describes himself as a confident, optimistic young man. He and two friends set up a charity to provide food and housing for the women and children of his city left destitute by the ‘troubles’. He was approached by state police and warned off this work. His father was a well-
One of his friends was killed outright in a car accident: ‘run over’. Samir received another warning from police to ‘cease the charity work because it is anti-
Samir’s Story continued/ …
He was released after many months and his mother, sister and friends cobbled together enough money to get him out of the country.
When he arrived in the UK he was pointed towards a police station to get help. It was night-
Samir suffered a major breakdown following this. Whilst in the prison he had been appalled at the abuse of human rights, of his own and fellow asylum seekers, two of whom died whilst in there.
Samir describes the support he has had since his gradual recovery as ‘amazing’ and wonderful and he says he feels ‘so blessed that there are good people in this world who have bothered to help him’. But he no longer recognizes himself. ‘I had something to give to others once’, he tells me, ‘now I have nothing.’ Silent tears fall down his face as he asks me ‘Who is making sure those women and children eat now we’ve gone? I feel I have let them down. I am a failure because I no longer have the will to live.’
He is frightened and anxious, his trust shattered: there is no place of safety. I feel very privileged to be working with Samir. Will I be able to create a ‘safe enough’ space for him?
R is an older man in his 60s from a region of Africa which is very unstable and unsafe. He came to England about 15 years ago and has refugee status, plus a wife and family here. He has been unable to work, in pain, often uneasy and afraid, suffering from nightmares when he slept. In his bed he found himself rigid, unable to relax, listening, prepared most nights for attack.
Previously he had a business in Africa which was attacked and robbed several times by bandits. The last time he was badly tortured.
He told me this early on but it took some time in our work together for him to feel ready to tell me more about what happened to him. He had not spoken about it before. He asked me to tell his doctor, which I did. He had needed medical treatment for his injuries but had not attended for operations when he was given appointments. He was very afraid.
The doctor wrote to the consultant to explain. The hospital responded with consideration and patience. Through our work together and the link with the medical team, R was able to decide he could go for his operations and came back to tell me about it with joy in his heart -
I know – You know, the early days
You sit slumped in the chair, your head almost touching your knees
I know you need to come regularly for the fog of depression to lift
You know you want help and the same person week on week
Our interpreter has all the skills we need to work
But I know I have to let you know I’m there for you
I call your name so softly I S H A A R
Relief, you lift your dark curly head and see me smile
The ache of loneliness, the British people always rushing by
What do they do? Where do they go?
You know you want to work again in rhythm with the sea
At the end of the day, your child’s arms around your legs
An intimate welcome too from your wife
You show your tears, where are they? Are they even alive?
I know more of your story must come out when and if you wish
Maybe you know I want to do my best for you
I do hope so…
With thanks to the counsellors and psychotherapists of the Trauma Foundation South West. The following contributed ‘messages’ to this collection:
Kim Hastings (in memory)
We would like to share with you writings by some of our therapists and stories from our work with traumatised asylum seekers and refugees.
All those clients involved have given permission, but their details have been changed to protect their identities
Writing Collection by Therapists and Counsellors