The following commentary is adapted from Reem Abbasi’s speech at the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) Hope Breakfast in Minneapolis on Thursday.
I am currently working as a psychotherapist trainer at CVT Jordan. I worked as a psychosocial counselor for CVT for almost two years; it became the best place that fits my passion and desire to work with war and torture survivors. As a psychosocial counselor, I interview clients and do a clinical assessment as part of intakes. I facilitate group therapy and also do individual therapy. I have worked with families, children, teenagers, adults and elderly.
I would like to share with you a story of one of my clients, a 13-year-old Syrian girl, a torture survivor who walked into CVT in July 2014. I will call her Jana.
When Jana was almost 11 years old, she was arrested by the Syrian army. She was targeted to force her father to turn himself in. One of the soldiers grabbed her left hand aggressively, pulling her into the pickup where many other children were crying and screaming. Jana was put with the other children in a dungeon underground in the dark for 22 days. They were beaten by four soldiers using guns and hoses, and were humiliated verbally. They were offered dirty water and one boiled egg for the whole day. Jana felt responsible for other children’s safety and encouraged them not to drink. This little child kept telling herself that justice would be served and “I will be free” and told other children, “Keep your faith, with God’s will we will be out.”
The child also witnessed the death of another child as a result of being tortured. The boy was beaten on his head using a hose and he was crying for help. The child was left bleeding until he died. His body was left until it smelled. She said, “I wished that I could help him or say good-bye. He is my neighbor. At that moment I wished that I could die with him. I was so frightened that I will die in the same way.” Jana couldn’t forget what the boy had said. “I will be out because my father will come to rescue me.”
Jana begged the torturer to stop beating the youngest children and to beat her instead. By the time her father turned himself in, Jana was released; her mother came to take her back home. Jana was extremely affected physically and psychologically by this experience. She couldn’t forget the soldier’s facial features, his big moustache, shaved head, huge body and harsh voice. Her mother mentioned that she could not recognize her daughter the first time she saw her. The child developed severe PTSD symptoms, depression and anxiety. Physically she was not able to use her hand to do simple things. The child became socially withdrawn, had nightmares about watching her friend being killed, guilt feelings as she recalled the boy’s voice crying for help as he was bleeding and she couldn’t help him. She would re-experience her trauma when she heard other children at home cry or scream, reminding her of the other children who were tortured. Jana also had guilt feelings over the death of her father, who was killed after everything. Jana said, “I don’t deserve life, my father has been killed because of me.”
Jana received individual psychotherapy sessions and was helped to process her trauma and learned how to cope with her fears, isolation and sad mood. The mother was part of the therapy plan. In addition, her mother was assigned to group therapy with other women. Jana also received individual physiotherapy sessions and was referred to the social worker for medical and social needs. Jana showed continuous progress over the time of therapy. The mother-child relationship grew stronger. Jana is back to being a child again. She sends social media messages to her friends, encouraging them to come to CVT. She is also a role model for compassion. The child felt sorry when she learned that the perpetrator died in a horrible way. When asked how she can explain such feelings, Jana mentioned it is because he is human.
She said that when she helps others it gives her more self-confidence. She wishes to stand beside anyone who has been treated unjustly. She mentioned that nothing can frighten her now, having discovered that she’s been courageous. Jana goes to school and wants to become a teacher.
I have been asked this question over and over: “How you can bear listening to such horrible, painful stories?
I can answer those who ask this question — that it is such a privilege to be in the unique place in the presence of such heroes who bring their experience into my life. It is the experience of the best and worst part of humanity. It is the place where you see both human vulnerability and resilience. It is where you share and taste human pain and suffering. It is the experience of both despair and hope; darkness and light; and death and life. And largely it is the joy when you see the smile, the hope, the dignity and the spirit that has been restored in them. It is the gratitude when those people leave CVT and carry this hope to their families and communities.
Mother Theresa once said: “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” I believe we all can have this ripple effect in the world.
Working at CVT has sharpened my clinical skills, and challenged me to prioritize things in life, to appreciate life and appreciate this career that has turned out to be an inseparable part of me. CVT has given me the privilege to be the person who aids in healing the wounded hearts, in restoring hope, dignity and spirit of humans. I don’t believe there is a meaningful and rewarding life one can have without sharing with humanity both its sorrows and joys, without giving part of us, without love and passion. War and torture survivors are in desperate need to find warm and respectful hearts where they can recover, as at CVT.
Reem Abbasi is a psychotherapist/trainer at the Center for Victims of Torture’s Jordan program, where she extends rehabilitative care to Syrian and Iraqi refugee survivors of torture and war atrocities. Before joining CVT, Reem served as a counselor at Nour al Hussein Foundation and Liberty University Center for Counseling and Family Studies. Before pursuing a mental health career, she worked as an attorney in Jordan. Reem is pursuing a Ph.D. in professional counseling at Liberty University; she has a master’s degree in counseling from Liberty University and a bachelor’s degree in law from the University of Jordan.
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