As hope mounts for rebuilding Iraq, there is a challenge even more fundamental than stringing electrical wires and patching up schools.
It is healing the trauma that Iraqis have suffered so that they can return to work effectively as teachers, doctors and other community leaders.
The Minneapolis-based Center for Victims of Torture is pitching into that effort with a new $1 million program in Jordan, to treat Iraqi refugees who suffered torture and war trauma.
Between 2 million and 5 million Iraqis have fled their homes, about half leaving the country and half moving elsewhere in Iraq, according to estimates by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Those displaced inside Iraq include some who had gone into hiding before Saddam Hussein’s harsh government was toppled in 2003, but many of them are on the run again because of the war, the U.N. agency said.
The majority of those who left the country fled to Jordan and Syria. A few thousand returned to Iraq this year and several thousand have been resettled in the United States, Sweden and other countries. But the vast majority are crowding into cramped apartments and making do with shortages of health care, food, schools and other necessities. Because they have no legal status outside Iraq, most have been unable to work.
Most of the displaced Iraqis witnessed the violent deaths of loved ones. And more than one in five have suffered torture, rape and kidnapping, according to a survey by the International Organization for Migration.
“Even for an organization like ours that sees the effects of torture on a daily basis, the level of trauma experienced by Iraqi refugees is startling,” Neal Porter, CVT’s director of International Services, said in a statement announcing the new initiative.
“This kind of political violence destroys leaders as well as communities by spreading fear, distrust and anger,” Porter said. “We know professional mental health services can heal individuals, but it is also integral to restoring societies torn apart by violence.”
Step by step
Initially, at least one CVT staffer from Minneapolis is expected to be involved in the project, which is funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, said CVT spokeswoman Holly Ziemer.
In September, Porter is scheduled to begin setting up the CVT’s office in an Amman neighborhood where hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees are living.
One early goal for the program is to provide direct mental-health services in the first year to at least 900 individuals who are highly traumatized as a result of torture and war trauma. Home visits also will be offered to provide support for 4,500 family members.
Another goal is to hire and train Jordanian mental health paraprofessionals who can act as counselors and advocates for human rights. In its programs in Liberia, Sierra Leone and other war-torn countries, the CVT has trained paraprofessionals from within the refugee community itself. It cannot do that in Jordan, Ziemer said, because Iraqis are not authorized to work in the country.
A third goal is to train mental-health experts from other organizations to care for torture victims.
While at least 500,000 Iraqi refugees are in Jordan, many more are in Syria. The CVT proposed to start in Jordan, though, because the country has established mental health programs. While there is no specialized treatment for torture victims, there is a network of clinicians where patients can be referred for follow-up treatment, she said.
The program calls for follow-through and evaluation of treated patients. Only time will tell, though, whether the traumatized Iraqis overcome the disabling effects of torture which can lead to chronic pain, incessant nightmares, sleep disorders, nausea, depression and anxiety and many other conditions that disrupt day-to-day functioning.