Story by CVT volunteer Patricia Busse
Bringing survivors of torture together into groups is such a key part of the work at the International Rescue Committee in Tucson, Ariz., the organization has pushed to overcome obstacles like cultural stigma and mistrust to do it, said interim executive director Aaron Grigg.
“One of the hallmarks of being a torture survivor is a feeling of isolation — that you’re the only one,” Grigg said. “There’s real power in doing groups.”
The organization has facilitated a wide variety of groups over the years including groups for Iraqi and Bhutanese men and women as well as an art program for children of survivors of torture, Grigg said. Groups have incorporated everything from yoga to gardening to dominoes, and no two groups have taken the same path.
The group for Iraqi women got off to a rocky start, Grigg said.
“They were coming from a place where it was difficult to trust anyone because many of them were traumatized by people in their own neighborhood who they had known for years because the different ethnic groups started fighting against each other,” he said.
With time, and persistence, the group came together and members began to trust one another, he said. It was a big accomplishment, he said, because members represented the Sunni, Shia and Christian traditions.
With the groups for Bhutanese women, the organization had a different obstacle to overcome—a cultural stigma against keeping things secret from family members and neighbors, thus difficulty recognizing the importance of confidentiality in group therapy. Their solution: incorporating knitting into the group.
“They tell the community that they’re going to the knitting group,” he said. “There is no stigma attached to knitting.” This alleviates the participants from the community pressure to divulge what is talked about in the groups.
The groups evolve in different ways, he said.
When the group for Iraqi men started out, it revolved around playing dominoes—something they were no longer able to do in their home country after conflict began.
But games of dominoes opened the door for deeper conversations, he said.
In the group’s fourth session, they didn’t get to game-playing until the last 15 minutes of the group because the men were busy talking about the physical difficulties they were having as a result of the torture they endured. And after that, sometimes they didn’t even get to the game.
“We didn’t have to force them into a therapy group,” Grigg said. “We just gave them the opportunity, and they created it on their own.”
A group of 12 Bhutanese men moved in the opposite way, starting as a talk therapy group and morphing after about a year into a group focused on gardening on plots the organization has at a local community garden.
“All of them have a background in agriculture, and it’s a way for them to get back to their roots,” he said. “It’s been very therapeutic for all of them.”
No matter the challenges or the focus of the groups, there’s no denying the power of bringing people with similar experiences together, he said.
“Everybody I talk to who does this work talks about how important it is to do those groups because of the synergy that comes from working with more than one person at the same time,” he said. “For a survivor of torture to be in a group where they truly know that the other people know what they’re going through is so critical.”