Assisting refugees: Lessons on trauma and resilience

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Lao wedding in the U.S.

Making do with what you’ve got

 There are a lot of stories about refugees in the news. Some years ago, I helped resettle refugees from the Vietnam War. Trauma and resilience define what it means to be a refugee. All of them had lived through years of warfare. They had seen friends and family members killed. They had to flee the familiar towns and villages they had lived in all their lives. They arrived in a new country with hardly any resources, in a land where nobody spoke their language or understood their customs. Could you do that?

What they did possess was resilience. You had to believe that somehow, you would survive, despite all the horrors that you had already experienced. Those who didn’t simply did not become refugees. They couldn’t or wouldn’t give up everything they knew, risk death or imprisonment if caught, and wait in limbo for years in a refugee camp. All that and more, for the less than certain possibility of admission to some country willing to take them in. Here is a story about my interaction with one of them.

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Sopath (not his real first name) was from Cambodia, in his mid-fifties, had just arrived in the U.S. and was not talkative even in his native language. His entire work experience, from what my interpreter could gather, consisted of pulling a plow behind a water buffalo. And I was supposed to find him a job.

Running the employment section of a refugee resettlement program, I had dealt with these kinds of issues before, but this case felt different. When refugees were referred to my program, most were understandably anxious. A few were actually enthusiastic. In my experience, the Lao as a people tended to be gregarious and chatty, while Cambodians like Sopath were usually more formal and reserved. His affect was totally flat.

Working through my interpreter, I tried to collect a few more details about his life. But he simply was not present. It was as if the “Farmer, water buffalo” comment was as much as he could manage.

I looked through his file to see if I could learn anything else. I couldn’t figure why the communists had targeted him, since farming is as inoffensive a job as I could imagine. So little about that regime made any sense. The Khmer Rouge had killed between one and a half to three million of their own people. They killed people simply for wearing glasses. They assumed they were intellectuals.

Sopath had spent the last several years in a refugee camp, where, among other things, he had done well enough in English class to be placed in my employment program. It appeared that he had recently learned the fate of some family members. Before the war, he had a wife and ten children. Now he had two children. Everyone else was dead. That realization probably dominated his life.

Speaking through my interpreter, I said, “I cannot imagine what you have seen or what you are feeling now. But one thing is true in America. It is true in Cambodia. You have two children. You are their father. You must care for them, yes?”

He slowly nodded.

“So, what kind of work do you think you could do?”

After some prodding by my interpreter, the answer came back. “Farmer.”

Now, I’m not sure what kind of response I was hoping for, but that was not it. As a condition of receiving public assistance, people in my employment program were required to do “job search,” actively look for employment. Ideally, I would help them to identify leads and even place them in positions. At minimum, I was required to document that they had applied for at least five jobs every week.

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Teens lead way in teaching Camden, NJ, about ACEs and resilience

Hopeworks teens lead a workshop about ACEs science

Hopeworks teens lead a workshop about ACEs science

 

Two volunteers race against the clock to stack red Solo cups into the highest tower they can manage.

Queenie Smith keeps knocking them down.

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The boy born out of resilience

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A few months ago I published a blog, “A Mother’s Rage”. I re-accounted my rage and helplessness regarding my daughter’s high school rape in Miami, FL. I ended my post with words of hope. I wrote how several years had passed since my daughter’s assault. She was now engaged and pregnant with my first grandchild.  This is the rest of the story.

I held my daughter’s hand as she labored through the night with my grandson. I tried to comfort her fiancée, who felt helpless. I rubbed my daughter’s back, and held my breath each time she pushed. She pushed for five hours, but never gave up, because she is resilient. She brought her son — my grandson — into the world with her strength, love, and resilience.

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“Resilience” premieres at Sundance Film Festival to sold-out houses

(l to r) Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, who appears in Resilience; Robert Redford, father of Resilience director James Redford; Clifford Beers Guidance Clinic site coordinator Laura Lawrence, who appears in Resilience; Resilience producer and director James Redford; Resilience co-producer Dana Schwartz

(l to r) Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, who appears in Resilience; Robert Redford, father of Resilience director James Redford; Clifford Beers Guidance Clinic site coordinator Laura Lawrence, who appears in Resilience; Resilience producer and director James Redford; Resilience co-producer Dana Schwartz

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Resilience, a documentary that looks at the birth of the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study and how it spawned a movement across the world, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday. The first two screenings — both on Friday — were sold out.

Not bad for a film whose director, James Redford, wasn’t even planning on submitting it to the festival.

The buzz started before the festival even began. Wired.com listed Resilience as No. 2 in the 25 documentaries not to miss. WhatNotToDoc.com also singled it out. Nonfictionfilm.com did a story about the documentary.

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“Resilience” an official selection of Sundance Film Festival

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He wasn’t even planning on submitting Resilience to the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, says James Redford, whose production of Paper Tigers has been screening to sold-out audiences around the U.S. this year.

But late this summer, he shuffled some papers aside on his desk, and there was the application. It was due the next day. What the heck, he thought. I’ll submit it, as I have every other film I’ve made, but I won’t tell anyone. Why get people’s hopes up…again?

Two weeks ago, he was astonished to hear that Resilience was chosen to be an official selection. This gives the documentary great visibility and considerable boost for further distribution. It also brings information about the CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE Study, its import and how it’s being used to another large and influential group of people.

Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope looks at the birth of the CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE Study and how it’s spawned a movement across the U.S. It focuses on the work of pediatricians, therapists, educators and communities. It features interviews with several leaders in the ACEs movement nationally and in communities, including Laura Lawrence and Laura Porter, and Drs. Robert Anda, Vincent Felitti, Nadine Burke Harris, Victor Carrion, Jack Shonkoff and David Johnson.

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris and a patient.

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris and a patient.

The ACE Study measured 10 types of childhood adversity, those that occurred before the age of 18. They are physical, verbal and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; a family member with mental illness, or

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Esta Soler elevates child trauma to national policy stage

Esta Soler, CEO of Futures Without Violence

Esta Soler, CEO of Futures Without Violence

By Jeremy Loudenback, ChronicleOfSocialChange.org

As the sounds of an abusive husband interrogating his partner intensify off-screen, a camera pans up a flight of stairs.

A young boy, maybe 3, sits in knitted pajamas at the top of the staircase, cradling a plastic yellow truck. He listens intently as the sickening cacophony grows, while his parents’ shadows dance off the walls.

Screams and shouts turn to tears and pleading before the sharp crack of a blow reverberates throughout the house.

Though we never the see the punch, the impact is clear. The boy drops the toy truck, and the camera follows the boy’s stunned and searching face as the screen goes black.

This 30-second “There’s No Excuse for Domestic Violence” ad first ran in the summer of 1994, part of the first national public service campaign aimed at preventing domestic violence.

For longtime domestic violence advocate Esta Soler, the ad that her organization helped produce represents both a historic achievement in the drive to halt domestic violence and a trenchant reminder of the current struggle to recognize and prevent child trauma.

“That little kid on the stairs tells that story really clearly,” Soler said in a recent interview with The Chronicle of Social Change. “We’ve actually been talking about child trauma and exposure to violence in the home going back to the very beginning of when we started to do this work.”

In 1994, when the arrest of footballer and screen celebrity OJ Simpson drew unprecedented attention toward violence against women, Soler sat ready, armed with well-produced television ads and the stories of victims of domestic violence that would enter the zeitgeist at just the right moment to drive sweeping policy reform.

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Who helps our helpers? Vic Compher’s “Portraits of Professional Caregivers” documents their passion, pain

ACompher2Vic Compher, director and co-producer of Portraits of Professional Caregivers: Their Passion. Their Pain,” didn’t start out as a filmmaker. This documentary — his fourth — was inspired by his 20 years working in child protective services, and another 10 years working in hospice and clinical social work with older adults.

During that decade, he learned that many professional caregivers who work with traumatized people experience secondary trauma  — also known as compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma. This includes firefighters, emergency medical crews, ER nurses, doctors, police, and others.

The first part of the documentary — which was co-produced by  Rodney Whittenberg, who teaches filmmaking, and who also composed the music for this film — focuses on secondary trauma, or what caregivers experience when they respond to and care for people experiencing trauma.

“Secondary trauma, or compassion fatigue, is one more layer of the trauma experience,” says Compher, “a parallel process for many professional caregivers with symptoms that at times can somewhat resemble what their clients may be experiencing.

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