An article at the Minnesota House of Representatives’ Session Daily, “Collaboration, pilot program could expand the Center for Victims of Torture’s work in MN,” quotes CVT’s Peter Dross, director of external relations, and Alison Beckman, senior clinician for external relations, and describes legislation in progress which would “launch a collaboration between the center and Department of Human Services.” A video of the proceedings is also posted to YouTube via MN House Info. Peter begins to speak at about 8:00 and Alison at about 9:41. **An update: The legislation advanced in the Senate Human Services Reform Finance and Policy Committee.
Eric Schwartz, CVT board member and president of Refugees International, is quoted in an article at Roll Call, “Lawmakers from both parties resist humanitarian and refugee aid changes.”
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.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 maintained the garden, which hosted events like a client-led drumming circle, a community welcoming party and a chi qong class for staff. Clients often wrote 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.”