Accessibility links

Healing The Trauma of War - 2003-03-24

English Feature # 7-37294 Broadcast March 24, 2003

The Center for Multicultural Human Services helps immigrants and refugees in the Washington area who are victims of war deal with their experiences and adjust to life in America. Here is more about this center today on New American Voices.

The offices of the Center for Multicultural Human Services are located on the third floor of a dingy nondescript building on a busy artery in Falls Church, Virginia, a suburb of Washington. The casual passer-by would never guess that this building houses something unique: the only non-profit organization in the country, if not the world, dedicated to helping people of various cultural backgrounds overcome the effects of trauma caused by war, conflict and violence.

The center has had ten years of experience dealing with the mental health and acculturation issues of vulnerable immigrants and refugees. The director of the center, clinical psychologist Dennis Hunt, says the first step is to overcome the stigma attached to mental problems in many cultures.

“People who have been through the horrible things that many refugees experienced should normally have some kind of reaction, as human beings. And it’s very normal to have these reactions. The question is, how do you heal from these traumas so that you can move on with your life. So we need to address mental health issues, yet we can’t talk about mental health.”

The strategy, therefore, is to talk about the immediate needs that are important to the immigrant or refugee – housing, employment, food. The center engages its clients by providing services that include these basic needs, says Dr. Hunt, and in engaging them begins to discover what their mental health needs are so as to address them, as well. To be successful in dealing with these problems Dr. Hunt believes the center must take into account the cultural background of the people it serves.

“And for that reason we have staff who represent the cultures from which many of these folks come. We may, for example, with a group of Somali women, have a sort of an activity group, where we pull them together to work on a quilt or something like that, and at the same time engage them in conversation about the horrible rapes and other kinds of experience they went through. We’re doing therapy, at the same time, but we may also have food… It’s not a very traditional form of therapy, but for that particular group that may work very well.”

Different approaches to different ethnic communities may include individual intervention, or some activity in the home involving the whole family, or counseling in an office setting.

“We might present, for example, to a group of parents who are using discipline methods that were okay back home but are not okay here, and they’re getting in trouble for it, we may call this a parenting class, we may frame it as an educational program where they can graduate and get certificates, frame it in a positive way. So we reorganize the way we present things. We have the same goals, to get people to function in a healthy way, but we may present it to the community in a very different way.”

Much of the work the center does is with children and teens who are having difficulty adjusting because of the violence they witnessed in their home country.

“We know a lot about trauma nowadays that we didn’t know ten years ago. We know that it has an effect on the brain, that it can impair learning, that it can interfere with concentration, that kids can become highly distractible, they can become aggressive, that they can have difficulty regulating their emotions. Frequently these children come from cultures where you don’t talk about your feelings very much, so they may not even have words to label these feelings that they’re having. They may feel that they themselves are bad, or somehow responsible for some of the terrible things that have happened.”

Dennis Hunt says the Center has developed various strategies to try to help these youngsters. The first thing the staff tries to do is to educate teachers and parents to recognize the typical symptoms of trauma, so as to provide the child with a supportive, rather than a hostile environment. Then, working individually or with groups of kids, the center provides therapy that may include playacting, art, and something Dr. Hunt calls “metaphoric” activity.

“We use metaphoric activity such as building bridges. Because these children are going from one world to the next, and we talk about what qualities these bridges have to have, and what they expect to reach on the other side, and so forth. These kinds of things are very powerful with children. Children’s play is a way of them speaking.”

To help traumatized children overcome their problems and adapt to life in America, Dr. Hunt says the center deals both with the individual, and the environment in which he finds himself.

“We try to build on the strengths of the child and to develop new assets in the child that will serve as protective factors. Self-confidence, for example, a sense of a future. Children coming from these backgrounds often don’t have a sense of future. We believe very much in including the family in the whole process. And we try to renengage these children and their families in a sense of community from which they have been isolcated. Maybe working with them, doing some therapy, using various kinds of activities, we may at the same time be helping the father get a job, so that the household is a better functioning household because they can eat. So rather than looking at only 45 minute therapy sessions as is traditional in the West, we look at the whole person in the context of their world, looking at all their needs and trying to bring all these things together to create a healing process.”

The Center for Multicultural Health Services has a staff of 100 bilingual psychologists, therapists and counselors, assisted by 80 volunteers and 25 graduate students from local universities. It treats about 6000 immigrants and refugees each year.

Dr. Hunt says his fondest wish is that the center go out of business for lack of clients -- but adds that given today's world, it doesn't look like that will happen any time soon.