Religion and reconciliation in post-conflict northern Uganda

[Individual articles from the Fall 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

It is a day I will never forget. Six members of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) had surrendered and returned home after years of fighting a bloody war against the government of Uganda. The crowd gathered to witness the homecoming consisted of those who themselves had endured horrific massacres, mutilations, mass displacement and the abduction of their loved ones, including upwards of 30,000 children forced into the rebel ranks. I didn’t know what to expect as survivors and perpetrators came face to face for the first time. Would the crowd demand their arrest? Would some seek revenge?

What happened next is not what I had expected. As the former rebels moved into the clearing of the compound where the crowd of survivors had gathered, they one by one stepped on a raw egg that had been meticulously laid on the path along with two types of branches by the traditional leaders. Known as nynyo tong gweno, this act signified a desire to begin the process of reconciliation, symbolizing the perpetrators’ acknowledgement of wrongdoing and their desire to be a part of the community again. Noise erupted from the crowd, but instead of the sound of insults and jeering, it was the sound of cheers and jubilation. Shortly afterwards, the Catholic Archbishop of northern Uganda, John Baptist
Odama, knelt down in front of the returnees, stating, “If in any way my contribution [to ending the war] was not sufficient or enough to make you better, please forgive me.” The moment was powerful and communicated collective responsibility, acceptance, hope and a desire to move forward together to achieve sustainable reconciliation and peace.

Religious leaders in Northern Uganda have been active in promoting peace and reconciliation throughout the region. Beginning with an idea to come together and pray, the religious leaders recognized they would have a greater impact working together rather than separately. Out of these prayer meetings the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI), consisting of top clerics from the Anglican, Catholic, Muslim, Orthodox and Pentecostal faiths, was born. Guided by values and teachings that its participants share in common, ARLPI seeks to foster sustainable peace and reconciliation by transforming conflict using the path of nonviolence. As the Catholic Archbishop Odama states, “The world has torn us apart; it is our job to bring it together.”

With many based at the grassroots level, Ugandan religious leaders have been well placed to provide constant spiritual support and encouragement to those enduring through hardship. Religious leaders have organized activities such as building monuments to remember those killed in the conflict and annual peace prayers at massacre sites throughout the region. Many survivors of the conflict have told me that religiously-based
messages have provided a significant source of comfort to communities that have lived through ongoing conflict. One individual shared how the biblical story of Job narrated by a religious leader during a peace prayer event resonated with her personal experience and helped to provide a sense of hope that her plight was temporary. She insisted that “It’s only the word from the Bible that can console people. . . . . You will find that this type of suffering did not only start with me. Like for Ayubu [Job], all his family died so Ayubu was left with nothing and again God brought to him a lot of pain . . . but still Ayubu survived.” Reflecting on the unprecedented brutality and large scale of the violence that had torn through northern Uganda, one person with whom I spoke observed that “such kind of death would not be managed emotionally by anyone if there were no prayers.”

Promoting theology that insists that “we are all children of God,” religious leaders have also used peace prayers to provide a non-adversarial and supportive forum where both survivors and former rebels have an opportunity to give their testimonies and feel safeguarded by the presence of religious and other leaders well-known for promoting forgiveness and reconciliation. Former rebels heard stories of how the war had affected the survivors and survivors were able to hear directly from individuals once deemed as enemies to learn about how many of them were abducted and forced to fight and about the hardships they endured just to try and stay alive with the hope they would one day return home to their families. This sharing of stories has not only helped to provide a better understanding of the complex nature of the conflict, but also helped to highlight the blurred lines between victim and perpetrator, fostering the re-humanization of those who were once solely viewed as the enemy.

However, not all have been supportive of the role and influence that religious leaders have had in promoting peace and reconciliation.Critics argue that survivors are pressured by religious leaders to forgive, which promotes impunity and does not adequately address the unique needs of survivors. Some critics express the concern that the Christian understanding of reconciliation carries strong moral obligations, implying that in order to have a relationship with God, one must forgive one’s enemies. This concern is compounded by the fact that the Acholi word for amnesty, a process vigorously promoted by the religious leaders in order to encourage the surrender of the rebels, is kica, which also means forgiveness. Others argue that the widespread use of religious rhetoric in promoting reconciliation may only help to achieve non-violent coexistence, but not reconciliation. For example, in post-conflict Sierra Leone, Lisa Skoval perceived the rhetoric surrounding Christian reconciliation to be “formulaic.” She found that while people verbally stated they had forgiven and reconciled with their perpetrators, community members remained “fearful, careful, and diffident in their dealings with former combatants” (quoted in Govier, 2006). Such critiques certainly name valid concerns. For their part, ARLPI recognizes that ceremonies of reconciliation like the one descried at the beginning of this article are only the starting point. Sustainable reconciliation is a long-term process, providing opportunities for both victims and perpetrators in northern Ugandan communities to work side-by-side, rebuilding trust, restoring interdependence and moving towards a shared future together.

Wade Snowdon coordinates MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program.

Learn more:

Finnström, Sverker. Living With Bad Surroundings. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2008.

Govier, Trudy. Taking Wrongs Seriously: Acknowledgement, Reconciliation, and the Politics of Sustainable Peace. New York: Humanity Books, 2006.

Oloya, Opiyo. Child To Soldier: Stories from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Toronto:University of Toronto Press, 2013.

Peachey, Dean. “The Elusive Quest for Reconciliation in Northern Uganda.” In Critical
Perspectives in Transitional Justice. Ed. Nicola Palmer, Danielle Granville and Phil Clark, 287-308. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011.

Tutu, Desmond. No Future without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999.

Related articles:

The church and peacebuilding in the African Great Lakes

Vulnerability and protection in settings of violent conflict

[Individual articles from the Summer 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Children in Palestine (here referring to East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) are more vulnerable than children who do not live under occupation or in conflict situations. Child protection efforts in Palestine and in other conflict settings should focus not only on safety within the walls of schools and other organizations working with children, but must also provide children support to survive the hostile world beyond and help children heal from the trauma they have already experienced.

Factors that increase Palestinian children’s vulnerability include: military detention and arraignment before military courts; violence at the hands of Israeli soldiers; home demolitions and forced displacement; restricted movement; and compromised access to education, healthcare, housing and play. Whereas Israelis and Israeli settlers fall under civil courts, Palestinian children as young as twelve years old can be prosecuted in Israeli military courts, often for crimes such as stone throwing. According to Military Court Watch, as of the end of February 2016 there were 438 Palestinian children in Israeli military detention as “security” prisoners, the youngest twelve years old. [“Child” here refers to all under the age of 18, following the United Nations definition of child.] The process of arrest, detention, questioning, trial and imprisonment violates Palestinian children’s rights and can leave them traumatized. Palestinian children are often arrested
in violent, purposefully intimidating, nighttime raids. They may be physically harmed while being transported and during detention. They are interrogated without an adult present and often see a lawyer for the first time when they appear in the courtroom.

Many Palestinian children, especially in areas with heavy Israeli military or settler presence such as East Jerusalem or Hebron, must daily pass through militarized checkpoint crossings on their way to and from school. Other children in refugee camps around the West Bank experience heavy tear gas exposure from frequent, often unprovoked, incursions of Israeli soldiers into the camps. Clashes between Palestinian youth, who throw stones, and the soldiers who shoot bullets and throw tear gas, sound
bombs and stink water often end in injury, death or detainment for Palestinian children and youth.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has reported that the demolition of Palestinian homes has dramatically increased in the West Bank in 2016. In February alone 330 people were displaced due to house demolitions, half of whom were children. Home demolition and forced transfer leave families extremely
vulnerable, homeless and robbed of savings, possessions and security. The Lajee Center in Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem provides a variety of educational and support programs for children, including: psychosocial support and trauma healing; opportunities to play soccer, learn music and dance dubka, the traditional Palestinian line dance; growing food on rooftop gardens; workshops on children’s and refugee rights; and more. It is a place where children are allowed to play and to dream alongside a community of supportive staff.

Last year Lajee, with support from MCC, trained its staff to work with children to learn about and heal from trauma, including daily traumacaused by the occupation. Lajee staff then asked the children about trauma in their own lives and even possible traumas or problems they were experiencing at Lajee. Based on this experience Lajee realized that
children must be able to heal from trauma and get help in any situation and decided to join a pilot project with the organization Defense for Children International, Palestine (DCI). This project, implemented with 70 organizations in 12 cities across Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, was designed to help organizations provide increased protection for their participants, both within their programs and within the children’s
families, schools and communities.

Each organization chose six to eight children to be trained as liaisons, mediators, advocates and mentors for their peers. These children and a few staff learned how to respond to concerns. For example, if one of their fellow participants at the Lajee Center comes to them with an issue that involves the staff or members of the Center, they should report the issue to another local area organization that participates in the project, or, in
serious cases, alert DCI itself to be able to step in with more professional capacity and provide support for the child.

The trained children also help the other children learn about their rights and ways they can protect themselves from the occupation, including how to get themselves a lawyer if they are detained or arrested by Israeli forces.

The DCI project is very important because it is not common for Palestinians to accept and discuss their trauma. Often children do not want to talk with adults about trauma or problems, but they are more able to share their experiences with other children. In Aida camp one of the Lajee Center’s trained children recently helped a fellow student who was being hit by a teacher at school. The child alerted DCI and was able to make sure that the teacher, who had been physically punishing children for years, was fired and not allowed back into any other schools to teach.

One challenge encountered by the Lajee-DCI initiative is that, even though children are often more willing to talk to one another about problems, many are still inclined to hide their troubles. Children also fear repercussions for speaking or standing up for themselves. This is especially true for those who have been arrested by the Israeli army because they are afraid of being detained again or that the threats made against them
while they were detained will come true. The Lajee Center wants to give the children the space to speak about their traumas, but the children fear it will cause them more harm from Israeli soldiers.

The Lajee Center believes that participating in the DCI project offers children an outlet to express concerns, fears or problems within Lajee. Participation in the DCI initiative has resulted in children who attend Lajee being more open about their feelings and their opinions about the center, which in turn helps Lajee learn ways to better serve and protect
these children.

Efforts to protect children in school and informal educational programs in Palestine must be supplemented by legal and political advocacy against military detention, violence and torture faced by Palestinian children. Military Court Watch, for example, acts as a witnessing presence for children in Israeli military detention and, when necessary, litigates to uphold children’s rights under international law. The No Way to Treat a Child campaign calls on the United States to put all available pressure on Israel to stop its abuses against children in Israeli military courts and prisons. MCC’s advocacy office in Washington, D.C. has supported this campaign, calling on MCC’s constituency to urge members of Congress to curb Israeli violations of Palestinian children’s human rights.

Child protection efforts in Palestine must thus respond to the increased vulnerability of living under Israeli occupation. In this context, MCC partners are attempting to provide more hope, healing and protection for Palestinian children through social and educational programs, psychosocial support, legal protection and international advocacy campaigns.

Amani Ashad works for Lajee Center, an MCC partner. She wrote this article with Catherine Keating, a former MCC worker.

Learn more:

Military Court Watch website:

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the Occupied Palestinian Territories website:

East Jerusalem YMCA website:

No Way to Treat a Child Campaign website:

Lajee Center website:

Defense for Children International-Palestine website:

UNICEF booklet on children in Gaza:

Gideon Levy, “Israel Sentenced a 13-Year-Old Girl to Prison,” Haaretz (April 14, 2016).
Available at:

Pyschological resilience in the face of trauma

Traumatic experiences can shatter one’s world and perspective on life. Even persons with healthy coping skills have areas of vulnerability. When severe adversity intersects with an area of personal vulnerability, the resulting flood of emotion can make it difficult to go on. Normally effective coping mechanisms give way to the symptoms of post-traumatic stress as a once-manageable world disintegrates and a fragmented mind struggles to regain balance. Yet, despite the very real risk of persistent post-trauma challenges, in the majority of cases people do not shatter, lose hope or require psychological interventions. Why is that? One variable is something researchers have called resilience, or the ability to adaptively cope in the face of adversity.

Resilience is a relatively new psychological construct and like with any new concept, understanding develops over time, some ideas gaining traction while others give way to richer, more nuanced conceptualizations. Along the way, resilience has become a popular household term, often used to describe people who come through adversity relatively unscathed. Yet popular understanding has also adopted some ideas that have since been discarded by researchers. This article will explore those misconceptions and then discuss new themes in resilience research, concluding with research-based suggestions for increasing resilience.

Challenging some popular understandings of resilience
Psychological resilience is not a personality trait. There are no resilient people: rather, resilience is a context-specific response to adversity. For example, an individual may show resilience in responding to a natural disaster, but display very little adaptive coping when confronted with the loss of a loved one. Likewise, despite a life-threatening car accident, a child may show positive adaptive coping in school, but experience disabling anxiety following a frightening encounter with an aggressive dog. Context impacts resilience.

Resilience does not imply invulnerability or a lack of suffering. Consider, for example, the loss of a loved one in a house fire. Deep grief, anger, blame and loss of purpose would all be normal responses following such an event. One would expect recovery to be complex and take time, social support and new forms of meaning-making. Resilience is displayed when positive coping leads to healthy adjustment following trauma: it does not mean the absence of suffering.

Properly conceptualized, resilience does not result in self-blame. Some activists claim that self-blame is implicit in the concept of resilience. They argue that highlighting how some people can cope with a traumatic event while others do not implies that the traumatized individual is to blame or is in some way, defective. These activists further contend that focusing on individual coping and recovery depoliticizes the injustice inherent in many traumatic events such as violence against women, accidents resulting from inattention to safety standards or disasters resulting from ecological mismanagement. Instead of focusing on recovery, these activists maintain that energy should be invested in collective action to bring about justice.

While collective action is essential, the concept of resilience, properly understood, does not involve blaming the victim or depoliticizing violence. For example, just as being physically injured in the process of armed robbery might require medical treatment, so too may post-traumatic stress symptoms require psychological intervention. Yet receiving physical or psychological treatment should in no way imply that the victim is to blame or exempt the violent offender from penalty. Responses to shocks and traumas must include recovery for the survivor and action to resolve injustice.

What, then, is psychological resilience?
Psychological resilience is the normal human response to adversity. Resilience is demonstrated when a person’s coping methods, although challenged, help negotiate adversity until stability is regained. Yet, if resilience is normal, why do some people struggle long-term? Everyone has areas of vulnerability, and when a shock or trauma happens to coincide with an area of vulnerability, or stressors occur too rapidly, anyone can find her normal coping mechanisms faltering, while even those who view themselves as strong can find themselves in need of help.

Certainly, there are protective factors that increase the likelihood of resilience, including: the personality traits of optimism, hope and hardiness; the practice of healthy cognitive and self-regulation skills; positive and compassionate views of self; and the belief that one can make a difference. External factors also contribute to resilience, such as: the support of family, friends and community; access to needed material resources; and access to rescue equipment or medical aid. No single factor can predict traumatic stress symptoms or resilience. Rather, the struggle to survive and recover involves a recursive relationship among managing overwhelming emotions, remaining grounded in personal values and beliefs and garnering social support, all the while addressing physical needs.

The more stability and healthy coping practiced in normal life, the more likely the resources to cope with shocks and traumas will be available when needed. Replacing unhealthy coping methods is less problematic during non-traumatic periods of life and may well be lifesaving. Once destabilized by traumatic events, it is difficult to train the brain to start new healthy coping behaviours.

Accessing new forms of healthy coping during shocks and trauma is difficult because of the way the brain functions. During a shock, the amygdala, the part of our brain that leads to fight or flight impulses, takes over, releasing adrenaline and leaving our prefrontal cortex, or our thinking brain, underutilized. That means that during a shock the brain goes into survival mode and the part of the brain needed for complex behaviours and high-level thinking is simply not available. It is only as the brain calms, and starts releasing serotonin, that the pre-frontal cortex returns to normal functioning. As the pre-frontal cortex is reactivated, higher-level thinking and coping mechanisms are once again made available. The more habitual the coping mechanisms are, the more likely they will be activated following shocks and trauma, thus resulting in demonstrations of resilience.

In conclusion, psychological resilience is demonstrated when adaptive coping helps a person negotiate adversity toward a return to stability and recovery. Psychological resilience is context-specific and does not preclude pain and suffering. Individuals can increase the likelihood that they will be able to access resilience following shocks and trauma by incorporating healthy coping practices in daily living.

Dawn Penner is an international trauma consultant specializing in work
with survivors of violence, including war, gender-based violence and
natural disasters. She has worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo,
Lebanon and Bangladesh.

Trauma awareness and resilience in Kenya

Over the past two years Kenya has been shaken by a series of violent attacks on civilians carried out by factions in Somalia’s ongoing civil war. These attacks have had a traumatic impact on the communities where they were carried out. Daima Initiatives for Peace and Development (DiPaD), headed by Doreen Ruto, is a Kenyan organization that has responded to these attacks by promoting trauma healing and psychosocial resiliency techniques. This article, based on an interview with Ruto, discusses the opportunities and challenges DiPaD has experienced as it has responded to recent traumatic emergencies in Kenya.

In September 2013 an attack on Kenya’s Westgate shopping mall took the lives of 67 individuals and left many more wounded. DiPaD organized workshops for caregivers and emergency first responders (Red Cross staff, journalists, military, police and pastors) in the wake of the attack. More recently, DiPaD responded to an attack at Moi University in Garrissa in April 2015 by conducting workshops for caregivers and first responders in trauma healing. DiPaD has also provided pre-deployment training in trauma awareness and psychosocial resilience for military members and their families, particularly those being deployed to high-risk areas. In all of these interventions, Ruto explains, DiPaD’s efforts go beyond addressing immediate psychosocial needs, also seeking to equip individuals with tools for long-term resilience.

In the five years that Ruto has been leading DiPaD, she has utilized and adapted knowledge, skills and resources from her education at Eastern Mennonite University. As a certified trainer for the Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) program, Ruto aims to accompany trauma survivors by equipping them with “self-help” tools for coping and healing. Ruto’s goal is for these tools to be part of a long-term response to trauma, as participants practice trauma healing skills with their friends and family following STAR workshops. Ruto stresses that DiPaD’s approach is a long-term one, which can present challenges. Some participants in DiPaD-organized trauma awareness and healing workshops come to the program with the idea that they will be receiving therapy. The organization’s training goals, however, include a more comprehensive approach to trauma that increases awareness of trauma and resilience while promoting trauma-informed dialogue.

Ruto has also grappled with adapting STAR resources, developed in the United States, for use in her Kenyan context. While Ruto appreciates efforts that STAR has made to enhance the effectiveness of its materials in multicultural settings, she finds that she must still make adaptations to account for different levels of literacy and cultural mores. As part of a recent trauma healing project in South Sudan, Ruto trained translators and local artists to work on translating STAR materials into nine of South Sudan’s major languages and contextualizing visual materials in STAR manuals for the local context.

Ruto explained that over the years some of her methods have changed due to her experience with trauma work. In addition to the typical STAR training format of four-and-a-half days, Ruto has also started a learning community to provide long-term follow-up for the trainees. She expects that after STAR trainees complete the workshop they will return to their communities, disseminate information they have learned and put their new skills into practice. She then has trainees come back together for what she calls harvest meetings to learn from one another’s activities and to discuss ongoing trauma response needs, successes and struggles within their communities.

After the April 2015 attack on Garissa University that killed 147 people and injured 79 others, DiPaD received an invitation from Radio Waumini, a broadcaster affiliated with the Catholic Church, to collaborate in producing 12 hour-long radio slots to air over a three month period focusing on trauma awareness and recovery in the wake of terrorist violence. These live broadcast programs not only educate listeners about trauma and its effects but also disseminate community-based strategies for addressing traumatic events. Ruto plans to invite survivors of the Westgate Mall attack to share personal experiences on the radio broadcast as a way to educate others.

Working as a trainer for trauma awareness and resilience is exhausting, Ruto shares, noting that few people work at trauma healing and psychosocial resilience in Kenya. Ruto observed that she has learned that she must recognize when to “step back” and be deliberate in finding time to rest and reflect. When asked about what imagery she would use to describe trauma work, Ruto said she compared it to a butterfly. “In the beginning, you only see ugliness, hurt, pain and darkness. Then you begin to see transformation and can recover and look toward a better future,” she shared. “Trauma can even help us to become better people.” Asked what advice Ruto has for other trauma practitioners, she reiterated the need to respond to immediate psychosocial needs while also working to build long-term resilience at individual and communal levels.

Beth Good, MCC Health Coordinator, interviewed Doreen Ruto, director
of Daima Initiatives for Peace and Development (DiPaD).

Art as resilient practice

The arts provide time-tested techniques for recovering from the stresses and wounds of trauma. Through the arts we access and process our emotions, both individually and collectively. For longer than recorded history, art has been part of human negotiation of life experiences—more of a sacred rite than a spectacle or commodity. In this article I discuss how art functions to support trauma healing while describing my experiences with particular arts-based trauma healing projects.

Healing properties of art
In order to begin healing from traumatic events, we need to reach a sense of safety and stability. We need to stop the harm, examine and clean the wound and provide conditions under which we can heal from the deep pain of trauma. We possess an amazing ability to cope when the pain is too great, but coping is an emergency instinct, not a long-term solution. The arts can offer a sense of security by temporarily transporting us to a ritual world that transcends pain and fear. Sharing art with others also reconnects us to sources of support and security in our communities.

Dissociation and other coping mechanisms inhibit emotions, sensory processing and memory functions so that we can continue basic daily functions needed to survive. Traumatic events remain emblazoned in memory, yet our brains can block these memories and leave us feeling distant and disconnected. Simply acknowledging a traumatic experience can be a powerful step toward healing.

The process of finding the roots of our stress often requires deep self reflection and soul-searching. The arts support this process by stimulating and integrating numerous regions of the brain simultaneously. Memory is linked to senses and emotions. Creating art is like coming home to oneself: it incorporates body, mind and spirit so we can access and address hidden emotional wounds.

The arts help us to engage our emotions and to relish what these emotions teach us. Art calls us back to our bodies and invites the most difficult emotions into the open where they can be examined. Art invites us to play with what we most fear. Poetry, in particular, allows the imagination to weave words together with feelings. Likewise, visual arts employ symbols, colors and textures to integrate aesthetics with rational thinking. Music, too, uses non-verbal expressions through rhythm, melody and sound to engage not only the mind, but also the body. This kind of holistic coordination is inherent in the expressive arts.

The arts can thus be extremely therapeutic. They can help us mourn—and celebrate—by expressing things viscerally. Thus art, music, movement and drama therapies have all become effective tools for practitioners working with traumatized individuals and communities to engage brains and bodies in regenerative processes.

Healing through song
For me, songwriting is therapeutic. When I release inhibitions, I allow emotions to find voice. The best songs come with minimal conscious interference. While the logical, rational and literal brain functions are aware and active, they allow the body, spirit and environment to lead. Various programs enable those suffering with post-traumatic stress to use songwriting as part of their healing. In some programs, military veterans or inmates use their musical abilities to write songs or partner with professional songwriters to collaborate on compositions. Other programs, such as playback theater, involve artists listening to stories of traumatized persons, and then offering those stories back to them in art forms, allowing them to view their stories from different perspectives. I have experimented with playback songwriting. One song, “Hole in Her Heart,” represents my mother’s story of grieving following my father’s death.

Healing through storytelling
Traditional cultures recognize the need for community support and provide rituals to bring individuals back into the community after traumatic events. Such rituals offer safety, belonging, permission to mourn, mentoring, accompaniment and meaning-making structures. Storytelling is one such ritual.

Storytelling is an ancient way to communicate both positive and negative experiences. Recounting our narratives is an important part of navigating the trauma landscape. Sharing painful stories is difficult, but it can bring validation when we feel heard and honored. Story sharing fosters a sense of connection between the protagonist and empathetic listeners. The telling and retelling of our stories can also be self-revelatory.

Music-making can be a form of corporate storytelling. Singing or drumming together creates and strengthens bonds among participants in music therapy groups. Creating music in collaboration calls for participants to engage personally and communally in the music: stating an idea, listening to the ideas of others and responding to each other, be it in unison, harmony or countermelody, expressing either dissonance or consonance. Through such collaboration, we model and practice desirable relationships.

Gradually, the stories we hold for ourselves make more and more sense to us as we regenerate our narratives. Storytelling through the arts helps us finds new meaning for the past, within the present and the imaginable future. Through art we reimagine and reintegrate worlds fractured by trauma and in the process we grow more resilient. As pain subsides, we can turn our attention beyond ourselves and perhaps support others on their journeys.

Art and resilience
My own commitments to the arts and to trauma healing converged in my involvement with the Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) program in Haiti, known in Creole as Wozo. Wozo is a reed that grows wild throughout the island. It offers a wonderful metaphor for resilience. Haitians say that wozo can be knocked over by wind or flood, yet still right itself; wozo can be broken off, yet a new shoot will grow; wozo can be cut down to the ground and burned, yet come back stronger than ever. A Haitian proverb captures this resilience: “We are wozo. We bend, but we do not break.”

With support from MCC, STAR-Wozo began in Haiti after the earthquake that devastated the country in 2010. Jhimy St. Louis, a participant in a Wozo seminar I attended, composed a poem about Haitian resilience that he recited on the final day. He and others encouraged me to set the poem to music. The resulting song, “We are Wozo,” has become important in my collaborations with colleague Frances Crowhill Miller. (Listen:

Frances and I, as Sopa Sol, are currently offering a project called Wozo—Songs of Resilience, in which we explore the journey from trauma to recovery through our stories and songs. Each presentation includes space for participants to enter in through their own stories of trauma and resilience. The project is customized for each group of participants and is continually transformed by the feedback we receive. This confluence of songwriting and trauma healing work seems to be an ongoing part of my story, and I am eager to find out where it will lead.

Daryl Snider is a songwriter and a graduate of Eastern Mennonite
University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.

Understanding stories of trauma

In many cultures, including Congolese culture, storytelling functions as a means of preserving and transmitting historical memory while building community solidarity. Narrative also plays a therapeutic role in reducing the psychosocial impact of trauma by allowing individuals or groups to tell their stories and listen to the stories of others within safe spaces (Kiser, 51). However, in some cases traumatic events are so horrific that survivors choose to suffer in silence. Fear of retribution and rejection prevent those who have experienced the trauma of rape from acknowledging the event and seeking assistance. My research with Congolese women who have been raped has underscored the key role that narrative can play in assisting rape survivors and others in understanding the trauma of rape and in helping rape survivors heal from that trauma.

Sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV) is rampant in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). A 2009 study found that 462,293 Congolese women, aged 15 to 49 years, reported having been raped within the past year (Peterman, Palermo and Bredenkamp, 2011). This stunning figure excluded girls under the age of 15 and women over the age of 49 who had also experienced this horror. Furthermore, for a number of reasons, many women choose not to report their attacks. Reporting rape too rarely ends in any form of justice for the victim and can often have negative effects, with raped women facing stigma, discrimination and retribution.

In February 2014, I collected stories from 14 women who had survived rape in the eastern DRC as part of dissertation research into trauma healing for SGBV survivors. I assessed interview data using narrative analysis techniques to identify themes that surfaced across all of the interviews, using that data to then compile one biographic narrative using the data and themes from all of the narratives. While I had planned for only ten interviews, many more women requested the opportunity to share their stories of rape and its aftermath. Nearly all of the women I interviewed expressed gratitude for the opportunity to share their stories and asked that I share their stories so that other women might find healing.

One of the primary goals of the narrative approach to trauma healing is to increase awareness of the dominant stories that shape the lives of storytellers (Bennet, 12-13). Becoming aware of these dominant narratives can assist rape survivors in identifying and developing responses that can bring healing and build resilience for individuals and communities. The narrative approach I employed in my research consisted of very loosely structured interviews. In responding to a limited set of interview questions, my informants focused on the key aspects of their own stories of rape as they experienced and remembered it. Rather than adopting a structured interview style focused on eliciting information about particular topics, I sought through more free-flowing interviews to allow my informants to identify the crucial dimensions of their experiences and memories.

The findings of my study resonated with a theory of social justice developed by Madison Powers and Ruth Faden, whose work in philosophy and bioethics has articulated how indicators of human well-being can serve as a measure of social justice. Powers and Faden have described six essential dimensions of human well-being: health (physical and mental); respect (self-respect and respect from one’s family and community); reasoning (ability to engage in coherent, rational thought); attachment (presence of intimate relationships); self-determination (ability to exercise agency); and personal security. While Faden and Powers grant that one can have a decent life without having a high threshold in all six of these dimensions, they do contend that human well-being can be negatively affected by a serious deficiency in one or more of these dimensions.

My research with Congolese rape survivors found that the traumatic experiences these women had undergone significantly affected their wellbeing in all six dimensions of human well-being identified by Powers and Faden. That said, the dimensions of well-being most adversely affected, I discovered, were attachment and respect. Though many of the women had suffered significant physical trauma, most only mentioned their physical injuries after I questioned them specifically about physical complications resulting from the attack. The majority of my interviewees, however, did highlight in their narratives the pain of rejection by their husbands and/or stigma they faced from other community members because they had been raped.

Stigma toward rape victims, particularly stigma from other women, often results from a need on the part of stigmatizers to distinguish themselves from persons who have been raped. This distinction acts as a pseudoprotective measure, cultivating the illusion that one is definitively safe from suffering the same fate as the victim (Grubb and Turner, 2012).

Trauma healing, awareness and resilience efforts aimed at addressing the particular needs of rape survivors must therefore pay particular attention to deficits in attachment and respect. My research found that narrative opportunities for rape survivors to share their stories can contribute to a reduction in the stigmatization and discrimination of rape survivors in at least two ways. First, by affirming and supporting rape survivors in exercising self-determination as they share their stories, thus building their resilience as individuals and in turn strengthening their confidence in fostering intimate attachments and building relationships. And second, by expanding and deepening family and community understandings of rape and the experiences of women who have faced it, in turn reducing the stigmatization of rape survivors. Storytelling by rape survivors thus becomes a key way of expressing and building individual and communal resilience.

Beth Good is MCC’s Health Coordinator and holds a Ph.D. in Nursing.

EMDR and trauma healing in Palestine

Palestinian society has been and continues to be profoundly shaped by the trauma of political violence, both through mass displacement in 1948 and ongoing military occupation since 1967. In 1989 the East Jerusalem YMCA, a long-standing MCC partner, founded its Rehabilitation Program, aimed at meeting the needs of the many Palestinians who sustained lifelong, disabling injuries during the first Palestinian intifada (uprising), including their physical, mental and livelihoods needs. Mona Zaghrout has worked with the Rehabilitation Program since its founding. Over the past quarter century, Zaghrout has become a leading practitioner in the Arab world of a trauma healing approach called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), finding EMDR to be an effective therapeutic tool in helping traumatized clients cope with and heal from traumatic incidents.

The East Jerusalem YMCA Rehabilitation Program utilizes a holistic approach to rehabilitation, supporting interventions ranging from home or school modifications for persons using wheelchairs, to vocational assessments and trainings, to awareness workshops in schools for teachers and students about how best to support classmates with physical disabilities. The program’s holistic approach includes psychosocial support both for persons who are traumatized by political violence and for persons with disabilities coping with trauma.

The program started by using an eclectic approach to trauma healing, trying everything from psychoanalysis to behavioral therapy to gestalt therapy. While each therapeutic approach had its strengths, Zaghrout and her colleagues found that the real challenge they faced came with providing clients with maintenance support that would reinforce resilience in the face of new disruptions in clients’ lives. Seeking to respond to this challenge, Zaghrout started searching for approaches that would be suitable for persons living in ongoing conflict situations. This search led her to EMDR.

EMDR is an evidence-based approach designed by Francine Shapiro in 1989. The World Health Organization recommends EMDR as one of the best approaches for addressing trauma. Zaghrout explains that when people are traumatized by a specific incident, something may become stuck in their brains, and then, she continues, “the self-healing of the brain is stuck as well.” In EMDR sessions clients recall and focus on distressing, traumatic images, while receiving different types of bilateral stimulation, such as side-to-side eye movements. Through these sessions, Zaghrout notes, “we try to reach the touchstone event, which may go back to childhood, and when we solve it, when we reach it, everything else will be solved or ‘un-stuck’ and the self-healing process of our brain will go on.”

An asset of the EMDR approach is that it gives space for clients to re-live and see what happened in traumatizing incidents they underwent while allowing their brains to process those events. Zaghrout has found that EMDR is an effective therapeutic treatment for “people who did not want to speak about the details or felt there was something that they did not want to share with anybody.” EMDR enables such persons to process traumatic events without talking in depth about those incidents.

As the Rehabilitation Program started using EMDR, Zaghrout encountered skeptical criticism that suggested EMDR was a Western approach that could not be applied in Palestine. Zaghrout countered that EMDR could be successfully modified for the Palestinian situation and pointed to EMDR’s positive results in providing maintenance therapy to clients. Zaghrout and her colleagues were particularly struck by the positive therapeutic results they saw using EMDR. She notes that when “we (Zaghrout and her colleagues) were trained in EDMR, when we practiced it on ourselves at the beginning, we could see that it was very useful, very effective, very quick.”

Zaghrout grants that using EMDR in home visit settings in Palestine poses specific challenges. Most of the Rehabilitation Program’s psychological counseling work is done in clients’ homes. Some clients’ homes may consist of only one room. These conditions present an obstacle, because privacy is needed to carry out EMDR sessions. “With EMDR, you expect many things to come out, things that the client might not even be aware of,” Zaghrout states. For that reason, “it is best to have a setting of privacy and to ensure that whatever the client sees or says will be confidential.” Zaghrout acknowledged that Rehabilitation Program staff sometimes found it difficult to convey to clients’ families the need for privacy. However, she continued, “when the parents and the family see the difference that it is having with their children they would voluntarily collect themselves and sit outside until the session is finished.”

YMCA staff started seeing the effectiveness of EMDR through clinical observations. When visiting clients, they heard stories about how EMDR had changed their lives for the better. Zaghrout shares that she could see the positive impact of EMDR “in the eyes of the clients and the counselors. It is very rewarding when you succeed with a client, they can move on with their lives, they can face anything else and can handle it.”

Zaghrout notes that rural Palestinians typically do not care much about the names of therapeutic approaches: “They only know: ‘I’m not feeling well, I have symptoms, I cannot sleep and I want you to help me.’” Yet as they have started being treated with EMDR, they have begun asking for it by name. “People began asking, ‘What is this? What are you doing with me? What is the name of this?’ Then people started referring to each other as ‘EMDR.’ It was the first time that people were saying the name of the theory or the approaches that have been used.”

The Rehabilitation Program has also found EMDR effective when working with children. Staff counselors have used an EMDR-related technique called the group protocol butterfly hug and have trained school counselors in the technique through the Ministry of Education. Zaghrout has heard from several of the counselors that children will informally tell one another about the technique’s effectiveness and specifically ask counselors to do the butterfly hug with them.

According to Zaghrout, the Rehabilitation Program’s use of EMDR is not an instance of an outside intervention but rather represents Palestinians supporting other Palestinians. “It’s not that I’m coming from the outside and helping people who are suffering here,” she explains. “We are all living under what is happening, so it is not easy for us and for the counselors to do the work and to help others while we also have our own situations.” The Rehabilitation Program is accordingly intentional about caring for its counselors. They have structured retreats and stress releases to help them be more aware of potentially traumatic stresses in their own lives and of how to manage that so they will be able to continue helping others.

Zaghrout is the first Arab EMDR trainer and is now taking what the YMCA counselors have learned and accomplished using EMDR for trauma rehabilitation and sharing those learnings more broadly within the Arab world. Zaghrout says that she advises practitioners across the region to build on the YMCA’s experiences and not start from the beginning. She has recently led trainings in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Libya and Iraq, as well as for Syrian refugees. “We are trying to take this approach which has proven very effective in responding to traumas, especially in ongoing situations, and show how people can use it and how they can heal the traumas of their communities with it,” Zaghrout states. “So we are not creating new things but building upon what we have learned.”
Krista Johnson Weicksel interviewed Mona Zaghrout Hodali, Head of
the Counseling and Services Department of the East Jerusalem YMCA
Rehabilitation Program.