Traumatised children: how story-telling can heal the pain

Young people traumatised by violence in their owncountries are confronting their past in storytelling sessions. Phil Chamberlain visits theMedical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture which aims “to put the child back together”

Most of us will have heard fairy ­stories when we were young, where chirpy children escaped wicked witches and lived happily ever after. For the children treated by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture the monsters are all too real – but fables are being used to help defeat them too.

The children referred to the foundation are often on their own and living bewildered lives in a strange country. They will have seen or suffered violence and abuse.

To help them, the foundation’s consultant child and adolescent psychotherapist, Sheila Melzack, with her colleague Shai Schwartz, have pioneered the use of stories so children can confront their past.

“There are four main issues which affect the young people we see,” says Melzack. “There are emotional difficulties, extreme feelings which they cannot control. Then there are moral and ethical problems. There is also the cultural transition of coming to a new country as well as turning from a child into an adult. Finally there are the everyday practical problems of being a refugee. Many are in a state of suspended animation because they do not know whether they will be forced to return home.

“We are trying to give them coping strategies to deal with all these issues. But instead of saying directly what they saw or did we deal with it through displacement. They can be extracted through stories which create safe arenas to talk about these issues.”

Storytelling is done in individual and group sessions. The various groups are for those aged from seven to 24 and are divided into developmental, not chronological, age.

The therapy helps “to put the child back together”, says Melzack. “One of the coping strategies if you are traumatised is you stop using your imagination.”

So the stories can be used to recall and develop strategies to deal with problems and build resilience for a child cut off from the usual support networks. The young people may feel guilty for having survived or because of what they were forced to carry out. They will fear adults and perhaps people from their homeland in particular.Melzack says: “The children come from cultures with oral traditions so they are familiar with stories being used in teaching.”

Gani* is a Kosovan gypsy who fled to this country after his father was killed by the Serbs and his mother died after repeated attacks by Albanians. He has been treated by the foundation for more than three years. He is telling a story about a tiger troubling a community. He’s shy at first but quickly remembers the details and his confidence grows as the plot unfolds. “There are lots of different endings,” he says. “It is something we can change.”

With his legs stretched out, wearing jeans and trainers and, laughing with another member of the group, he’s like any other 18-year-old.

Melzack says: “Gani’s become a lot more confident in the past year but he still misses his family.”

Rivero* is 14 but looks younger and sits quietly, hands folded, looking at the floor but concentrating on the stories. He is from Bolivia and came to England with his family after his father was shot by drug barons.

Fifteen-year-old Mariama,* a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, is also quiet at first but jumps in to disagree about how one of the stories should end. It is one they made up themselves but has many of the elements familiar to many folk tales. It is about an important man and his sons and how one is punished when he breaks the rules of the community. They argue about whether it was right for the man to kill his son and if the young people in the story can change the rules of their society.

“Why could they not sort things out by talking to each other?” Mariama asks.

Melzack says: “We have been seeing her for several years. When she first came she found it hard to speak about anything. She just used to draw pictures.”

The storytelling sessions began after Melzack met Shai Schwartz, a professional storyteller from Israel. He lives in Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, a co-operative village of Jews and Palestinian Arabs of Israeli citizenship between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv-Jaffa. The village was set up so that Jews and Palestinians could live and work together equally.

Schwartz has a background in theatre and psychodrama and runs communication workshops where he weaves together Jewish and Arab folk tales and songs to show areas of mutual understanding and experience. Shai has performed and led such workshops in Israel and abroad. They have been used not only to help improve Arab-Israeli relationships but also the isolation felt by new immigrants.

Schwartz and Melzack combined their skills to help young traumatised refugees. Seven years later and the sessions have helped hundreds of children. About 170 young people are dealt with by the foundation at any one time and about 80 of these will take part in storytelling as part of their treatment. Participants are not just told stories but might be given a starting sentence then asked to add a new narrative twist.

Schwartz says: “These youngsters have had horrendous experiences, so they are wary of others. However, there’s a moment when an issue comes up and is acted out in front of the group that can be cathartic. It can sometimes create a breakthrough.”

He recalls the story of a boy who had contemplated suicide and who remembered in a session a story his father had told him before he died about a man who, when ­burying his friend, asks to go with him. It led to a discussion in the group about suicide.

Schwartz adds: “When I asked the boy what the dead friend would think if he thought he also wanted to die, the boy said he would probably tell him to stay and live life to the full. That was definitely a message from his father.

“You can feel the sense of release of energy when something has gone well like that. Sheila will then talk to the kids individually about how they felt and often a subject which had been taboo is no longer taboo.”

Melzack says: “The work as a group is about rebuilding trust in a community from which they have been disconnected. These children are isolated and we help them integrate into the community to give them a sense of belonging.”

It can be a long process. Some will have been coming for five years. Melzack measures progress in terms of how well the young people maintain their self-esteem, develop relationships and if the nightmares don’t come back so often.

The storytelling sessions now take place weekly with Schwartz visiting the UK several times a year to lead extended sessions and engage in training. The pair are now teaching therapists their techniques in this country and abroad.

Schwartz says: “I like to think of stories as water. They go through the cracks, they go deep, deep down, and you never know where they are going to touch.”

* Names have been changed

A safe refuge
Established in 1985, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture is a registered charity that provides medical treatment, practical assistance, counselling and psychotherapy to survivors of torture and organised violence. It has 70 full-time staff, 120 part-time staff and enough interpreters to converse in about 50 languages.

The main treatment centre is in London with branches in Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow. Two more are planned for the West Midlands and Yorkshire.

In the past 20 years it has had more than 40,000 people referred to it. The largest number of new arrivals comes from Africa followed by the Middle East, Europe and Asia. Nearly 100 countries are represented. Foremost are Iran, Iraq, Turkey, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon and Afghanistan.

Three-quarters of the foundation’s income comes from individual supporters. It receives no government funding.

This article appeared in the 5 April issue under the headline”Tell it like it was”





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