News / USA

Counselors Without Borders Help Disaster Survivors

Fred Bemak, left front, talks with Burmese children post-cyclone. (Courtesy of Fred Bemak and Rita Chung)
Fred Bemak, left front, talks with Burmese children post-cyclone. (Courtesy of Fred Bemak and Rita Chung)
Fred Bemak and his wife, Rita Chung, are world travelers, not as tourists, but as therapists. The psychologists are professors at George Mason University in Virginia, who bring emotional support to people facing devastation from natural disasters, wars or long-term abuse.  

In their 17 years of marriage, Bemak and Chung have traveled together and separately to almost every continent, to places most people would never imagine visiting.

“Since 1982, I have worked internationally every year but one year, and nowadays, I typically go two or three or four times a year to do international work around the world," Bemak said. "I have worked - worked, not traveled - in over 55 countries at this point.”

After working with survivors of Hurricane Katrina on the U.S. Gulf Coast eight years ago, the couple established “Counselors Without Borders.” The nonprofit provides humanitarian counseling in post-disaster and emergency situations.

“More recently, I have been working in Uganda with child soldiers and vulnerable children from war conflicts," Bemak said. "I have worked with post-conflict situations. I have worked with street children, I've worked with at-risk-youth and families from all over the world.”

Bemak usually works with a translator, but he says language has never been a barrier because understanding someone's pain goes beyond words.

“So when someone is talking and their voice gets low, when someone looks sad, when someone uses inappropriate language, I am always asking the translator, 'Please clarify for me why they just folded their arms and became very tense?  Why they raised their voice?  Why they seemed to become defensive?” he said.

Bemak is always amazed at how hungry people are for such help and how open they become.  After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, for example, he visited a camp where 30 displaced victims were living, and met a woman who seemed extremely depressed.

“She had lost part of her leg. She had refused to get out of bed for the past three months. She hadn't  changed her clothes. We sat with her, and talked with her about her life, about her feelings about what was happening," Bemak said. "At first, she was very resistant, but then she began to talk. At the end of this encounter she was smiling, she sat up, changed her shirt and held her new-born grandchild for the first time and started to come alive.”

“Fred, Rita and their team provided invaluable support in Haiti. And I've heard this from the people they worked with there, that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity for them to access that level of skill and service,” said Megan Olivier, with Partners of the Americas, the international grassroots network that facilitated their trip.  

She says there is a great unrecognized need for this type of counseling support.

"There is a tendency to focus on the physical wounds, but there are so many internal, maybe even hidden wounds that are necessary to heal in order for people to move on,” Olivier said.

Counseling sessions allow victims to face their loss and fears. Rita Chung recalls the group's trip to Burma, a week after Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008. One of the survivors was a man who had lost his wife and baby.

“He held on to his baby so tight when the waves came in," Chung said. "Then, when the water went back, he looked down and the child was missing. He was blaming himself for not holding tight enough. The whole group said to him, ‘It is not your fault. The water was so strong that it pulled up trees, and buildings were washed away.’  And we did this exercise where he was holding on to something, and everyone around him pretended they were the water. They were pulling and pulling the stuffed animal that he was holding on and that demonstrated to him that the cyclone was too strong for any man to hold a child. So he was able to deal with some of that guilt and begin to heal."

And it is not temporary assistance; Bemak and Chung train local health providers who can sustain the counseling support after they leave.  

They also take a group of their students with them on those counseling trips.

“This is a very fast moving globalization society, especially with technology and social media," Chung said. "We want to train our counselors to deal with what’s going on currently in the real world.”

Engaging their students in such 'hands-on' learning activities, Chung says, gives the next generation of counselors a new perspective on their work, so they will not just wait in an office for people in crisis to come to them, but will go out into the community and provide help wherever it’s needed.

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