Trauma Healing for Haitian Red Cross Staff and Volunteers (Croix Rouge Haitien)

June 14, 2010

By James S. Gordon MD

Already at 9am, the air is hot and heavy in the workshop tent. Fifty or sixty people are present, most of them quite young, taking notes, wonderfully attentive and responsive. They are a bit shy at first, but as we all introduce ourselves, they offer stories of trembling bodies, panicked hearts, of sights beyond endurance—watching family members crushed under falling concrete.

We teach them slow breathing to quiet the mind and body and relieve stress. They participate with eagerness and enthusiasm. Afterwards they clamor eager to “partager,” to share: “A feeling of calm for the first time since January 12th;” “a letting go in the shoulders;” “this is the first time also,” one adds, “that we’ve had an opportunity to learn about our own psychology, to share our feelings, to look at what stress causes in the body and to feel relief from it.”

After a mid-morning break, 30 or 40 more people join. “We have spread the word,” one of the young men says with a grin. After we do drawings (of “yourself,” “your greatest problem,” and “the solution to that problem”), the HRC staff and volunteers share them in animated groups of three. “There is hope here,” say several, of their third drawings.

They are filled with sunlight after darkness of the second drawing; with music—drums and guitar—and dance and movement, after “the biggest problem” of buried and walled off emotions, broken bodies and silence: “It gives me direction,” says one young woman, and others agree. Several stand to show their drawings to the whole group; many more want to.

Then we push back the chairs and stand together, shaking our bodies and releasing tension. When the music changes, the young people sing together, clapping their hands. Afterwards, no one seems to want to leave. Little groups form around each of our faculty and staff.

Twenty-five or thirty of the Red Cross volunteers and staff write notes of appreciation. Most are translated from Creole and French by our interpreters, and a couple are in English. Here, in English, are a few:

“Today I have found the means to comfort myself when I have a problem, to change my way of thinking and looking at things in other people and in myself.” Jeanty

“I feel so good. If everywhere they could have someone learn these exercises and teach them in their neighborhood, everything would be okay for everybody, and accept life as it is. Thank you so much to teach us. May God bless you and protect you.” Myrka

Many of the young people say spontaneously that the experience, has, in the words of one, “taught me how to face the dangers that present themselves to me instead of flying from them.” Another adds, “I’m very happy with the information that I learned today. Now I know how to confront my fears. I would like to be a part of another one of your workshops. Thanks a lot. I’ll never forget you. We needed it.”

“I’m Elder,” writes a third, “I’d like to say I’m very happy and I say to you a big thanks to you for that. You’ve made me a messenger to a lot of people in the world. Thank you so much for your encouragement and the hope of living you bring to me. I love you very much.”

Many, many of the HRC volunteers and staff tell us how much they appreciated the copies of the exercises that we gave them, as well as the workshop, and that they plan to share what they have learned with others. But still, “we want to learn more.” A number invite us to come to visit with them, to bring “workshops of healing” to family members and friends in schools, tent camps, and churches in Port-Au-Prince and beyond.

These idealistic, committed, bright young people (some Red Cross staff, most volunteering), are such an important resource for Haiti’s future. They have a tremendous appetite for learning about themselves and the world, and for helping others. I would very much like to do a full professional training for them.