Many torture survivor rehabilitation centers in the U.S. strive to recreate a home-like atmosphere for clients – from hanging indigenous textiles on the walls to displaying small handicrafts from around the world. And since many survivors come from cultures where they were deeply connected to the soil, creating community gardens seemed like a natural extension of this home-away-from-home philosophy.
The Majorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture in Chicago uses its community garden as a form of occupational therapy. They have found that client-directed projects are more sustainable, so they created an international cooking group. Every other Friday, survivors gather ingredients from a community garden nearby to create a menu based on traditional foods from survivors’ home countries. Then they make the meal from scratch. “When we sit down to eat, the cook talks about the food, culture and mealtime traditions in their home country,” said Mary Black, the Occupational Therapist who runs the group. “People might dance, sing. It’s very rich. There’s a lot of joy expressed there – and pride.”
At the Center for Victims of Torture in Minnesota, volunteers maintain a healing garden, which symbolizes the mission of hope, healing, and renewal. Plants, like people, go through cycles that present changes, and the garden offers the opportunity for survivors to relax, think, pray or to simply be still. And at Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma, staff worked with clients to design a healing garden as well, where as one client said someone can “lie down, stretch out their arms, and look at the sky”. Client volunteers maintain the garden, which hosts events like a client-led drumming circle, a community welcoming party and a chi qong class for staff. Clients often write in the garden journal, and one client eloquently stated, “Le jardin de l’ASTT exprime une nature particulière, la joie de l’existence même. Les chutes et le bruit de l’eau de la source exprimé un esprit de continuité, de ne jamais s’arreter ou d’être découragé dans la vie.” (English translation): “The ASTT garden expresses a special nature, the joy of existence itself. The cascades and sound of the water-source express a spirit of continuity, of never stopping or being discouraged in life.”
The International Rescue Committee’s Center for Well-Being in Tuscon, runs a therapeutic gardening group for Bhutanese survivors. “One of the hallmarks of being a torture survivor is a feeling of isolation — that you’re the only one,” said Aaron Grigg, interim Executive Director. “All of them have a background in agriculture, and it’s a way for them to get back to their roots.”
Story by CVT volunteer Patricia Busse
Clients at Chicago’s Heartland Alliance Marjorie Kovler Center have found themselves chopping onions, digging in a garden and even beekeeping as part of therapy sessions coordinated by Occupational Therapist Mary Black.
Black started as a volunteer at the Kovler Center in 1990 after reading an article in a newsletter for occupational therapists seeking volunteers to work with survivors of torture.
Her first assignment was to work with about a dozen children from Guatemala.
She was unsure how to approach the challenge at first, so she started by asking the kids and teens questions about their lives back home—especially how they played. They missed flying kites, she learned, so at the next group meeting they constructed and flew kites together. They were not the standard kites she was familiar with in the United States, she said, but miniature versions of “barriletes,” the huge traditional window pane colored kites flown over cemeteries on All Saints Day.
“I did not expect that a seemingly mundane exploration of play and constructing kites could lead to such insight into trauma, cultural traditions, safety, collaboration and community,” Black describes in a chapter of Occupational Therapies Without Borders Volume 2. (Elsevier Ltd. 2011)
Taking a cue from clients
That initial experience of learning from clients laid the groundwork for Black’s future work at the center, where she joined the staff about five years later.
“Getting information from clients has really shaped the direction of programming,” she said. “Finding out who someone was in their home country helps to guide us in restoring some dignity that has been lost.”
They have found that projects which are client-directed are more sustainable. One longtime program has been the international cooking group.
The cooking starts around 5:30 p.m.every other Friday in the Kovler kitchen. Typically, one client volunteers to prepare a menu based on traditional foods from their home country, and then the group works together to prepare the meal, visiting while they work. In the summer season, many of the ingredients come from the kitchen garden in back of the center, or nearby community garden where the Kovler Center maintains vegetable plots.
They make the meals from scratch and, since clients come when they can, they often don’t eat until 8:30 or 9 p.m., Black said. When we sit down to eat, the cook talks about the food, culture and mealtime traditions in their home country.
“People might dance, sing. It’s very rich,” she said. “There’s a lot of joy expressed there, and pride.”
A sense of contributing
The meals offer a needed break for clients who have a lot of stressors on their minds, like asylum cases, financial struggles or unemployment, she said, but they do more than that. They offer a sense of community at a point when many clients still feel like outsiders much of the time, and an opportunity to contribute to something that others can enjoy.
Working in the community garden also gives clients that sense of contributing. Not only does the garden provide produce for clients and the meals, but it provides the surrounding neighborhood with needed green space in a spot that was once known for gang activity and considered dangerous.
“That’s the beauty of doing community-based work, is that there’s a real physical presence and something beautiful is being created and people have fresh food … it’s offering something to the community that wasn’t there before,” she said. “It’s not just altruistic, it’s how our clients are shaping opportunities that also impact rebuilding the community.”
Story by CVT volunteer Patricia Busse
It’s not typical for attorneys and mental health professionals to serve clients as a team, but lawyer Deirdre Giblin said she couldn’t imagine handling her asylum and refugee cases—often involving incidents of trauma and torture—any other way. She is a part of an innovative program called the Refugee and Asylum Assistance Project (RAAP) at the Community Legal Services and Counseling Center in Cambridge, Mass., where lawyers and counselors team up to serve refugees.
“It’s a different kind of case if you’re just trying to function on a legal basis and not internalize all the trauma and emotion,” said Lisa Weinberg, another Immigration Attorney at RAAP. “It’s not ideal.”
After the trauma that many refugees and asylum seekers have endured in their home countries, going through the American legal process including retelling a story of torture in detail—often multiple times—could be re-triggering and traumatizing, said RAAP Associate Clinical Director Mojdeh Rohani.
Aside from the obvious benefit to the client of having a professional counselor available to help them deal with those emotions—mental health can also be critical from a legal perspective, Giblin said.
A client’s mental health is key in their ability to provide credible testimony, and credible testimony is critical to the success of their case, she said.
“A lawyer in the field cannot be successful with their client unless they have some good mental health support,” she said.
Beyond mental health, social workers at RAAP help clients meet their basic needs, like food, housing and medical care, said Clinical Social Worker Lauren Shebairo.
“We can’t even think about having them prepare for a trial without their basic needs being met,” Giblin said.
In addition to therapy and basic needs, the clinic also helps clients build community with one another.
In spring of 2009, Shebairo initiated a biweekly group for refugee and immigrant women who have been affected by torture and trauma and are currently experiencing social isolation. The group has been designed to provide women from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to come together to provide mutual support to one another while enjoying a variety of artistic and expressive activities, including a group sculpture project.
Although the partnership between lawyers and mental health professionals is unique, it seemed natural for the Community Legal Services and Counseling Center, which has been teaming up counselors and attorneys for more than 40 years to serve clients in areas like family law, disability and housing issues.
In 2001, the partnership between immigration attorneys and counselors started after a lawyer saw the need for psychological evaluations of clients and sought the help of volunteer clinicians, said Clinical Director Dr. Paul Goldmuntz.
In 2007, the organization formally named the Refugee and Asylum Assistance Project and it became an official branch of the overall organization.
RAAP relies heavily on the work of volunteers. Three staff attorneys mentor about two dozen volunteer lawyers who work on between 120 and 140 asylum cases per year. They also use volunteer interpreters, Giblin said.
On the counseling side, about 23 mental health professionals volunteer to evaluate clients. These clients are able to be seen for ongoing counseling and treatment as needed, Rohani said.
Clients come from about 35 different countries per year, and the mix of countries of origin typically changes based on which parts of the world are in turmoil.
“There’s about a six-month lag time from what you see on the news, and what you see in our door,” Giblin said.
Not only do they see clients who were targeted for their politics or affiliations, but they also serve those harmed because of their gender or sexual orientation, Weinberg said.
“We’re starting to see a lot of people fleeing because of their status as a transgender person, or sexual orientation,” Weinberg said. “All over Africa, the attention on homosexuality has really increased over the last few years, but we really see those from all over the world.”
They’re also seeing a lot of cases where women can’t get domestic violence protection from their government, she said.
While attorneys and mental health professionals with the organization tout the benefits of their teamwork, they admit there is some work involved in bridging the gap between the two professions.
For example, legal professionals are often working fast on a tight deadline, while mental health professionals typically take their time and avoid pushing people faster than they want to move, Goldmuntz said.
Still, they say, it’s well worth the work.
“It really helps the attorneys too, it doesn’t just help clients,” Giblin said. “What we’re doing here is more holistic. It’s a great program for both the clients and the attorney.”