No pills, but art therapy for trauma victims

By Judit Neurink 12/12/2016

ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – With a shortage of therapists in the country, many of the thousands of traumatized victims of war and violence in Iraq are treated with pills that often do not offer a solution for their trauma.

The most well-known cases of trauma are among the many Yezidi victims of ISIS. But as the militant group gets pushed back further, more victims are emerging in towns and villages around Mosul, and from the city itself.

As the number of people needing therapy is rising, it is increasingly important to find ways to educate more therapists. A training of trainers in art therapy program was, therefore, set up in the Kurdistan Region capital Erbil.

“The training teaches trainers to use skills that will be an alternative to the medicine,” said Bahar Ali of the local Emma Foundation, who organized the training. “Art is an easy tool. We can use it in schools and shelters, anywhere in the society.”

She pointed out that “especially now after ISIS, it is a good time to start with this therapy, as we do not have the experts.”

The future trainers are from different backgrounds, some from the health sector but also some are arts teachers.

“With the Yezidi girls who came to us, we tried to make them forget what happened to them by offering handicrafts and painting,” Ali explained. “Now we know how to use it, where and when.”

Art therapy is especially useful in Iraq, as it makes it possible for people to express themselves without having to talk, said Fiety Meijer, one of the Dutch trainers who conducted the training with funding from the Netherlands.

“People who have problems speaking out, who have been through something that is too bad for words, who feel ashamed, we help to express themselves so eventually they can talk about it,” Meijer said, pointing to the culture in Iraq that makes it taboo to talk about psychological problems.

One of the problems for people who have suffered, is that the trauma fractures their life line, she pointed out. “They talk about before it happened, and after. You try to make the line complete again by making them talk about it.”

“By looking at the past, people start thinking about their future again,” added her colleague Marlies Mannesse.

For many trauma patients, that is impossible.

She stressed the importance for society to heal the wounds. “These are the people who have to rebuild their society. If the whole society has been damaged, like here, how can they?”

On the last day of the training, the 21 participants were given two pieces of white paper and colored felt tips, and asked to draw both their best and their worst memories.

After finishing, they all shared their paintings, with titles like “Close to hell/The farm”, “Having no family/Children”, “Internal separation/Being mother”, “First meeting/Car accident”.

Meijer explained that the training started with exercises to show the trainees that they can all draw, even if they are not talented in art, and that the exercise on the final day was only possible because of the trust that has grown between them.

Although this was a training course, it works a lot like therapy would, she said, “but we do not enter into the issues that we see.”

After doing individual drawings, the class was then split into three groups and told to work together on a big drawing. Meyer told them they were on a boat that capsized and they ended up on an island. They must organize things on that island as well as possible to survive until they are rescued.

When the exercise is done, the three sheets of paper show islands with fires to ward off wild animals, scarves as flags to draw attention, kitchens, toilets, and a place where everybody feels safe. One of the participants even jokes that his group “wants to stay on this island. It’s so nice here.”

When asked what they learned, many mention working together, exchanging ideas, coping with a bad situation. “Sharing feelings with others is better than to keep them to yourself,” someone said.

One of the participants, Hawara Nawzad Karim, 27, vowed to use what she learned. “I want to give my students and colleagues at the university the opportunity to learn about it.”

She is an assistant lecturer at Koya University and works voluntarily as a psychotherapist at the hospital there. She works with adults, but now she knows how to work with children too, she said, as the training is used for them as well.

“As a therapist, sometimes we cannot ask directly: what is your problem, how do you feel? But with this therapy, we can open the door to make people talk about themselves. Sometimes they do not know how they feel, and from the drawings they can and start thinking about it.”

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