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.

You May Like

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

Audio 'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
X
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs