16 Apr 2021
"Working with survivors of torture has helped me to heal from my trauma"

On March 30th 2021, in conjunction with our webinar on ‘Survivor Engagement’, we were visited by survivors, practitioners, and activists, who all shared valuable insights into survivor engagement in the anti-torture and rehabilitation sector. One of those was Lynn Walker from IRCT member Tree of Life (ToL) in Zimbabwe. Lynn Walker, the Director of ToL, shared how their approach to survivor engagement is a crucial means for the healing process – not only for the clients, but also for the ToL officers: “Working with survivors of torture has helped me to heal from my trauma, and the process has helped to understand that the journey of healing is not a one day thing but it is a process” - Tree of Life Field Officer

Lynn has shared their approach on how you can practically incorporate torture survivors into the rehabilitation process. We hope this can inspire fellow practitioners in rehabilitation centers to rethink rehabilitation services and see whether they also can plan for survivor engagement in the healing process.

Photo credit: Tree of Life Zimbabwe

How has Tree of Life incorporated torture survivors into the rehabilitation services and program at Tree of Life?

"Crucial to the Tree of Life rehabilitation services is that not only are the participants survivors of torture and collective, politically motivated, violence, but most of the Facilitators of the process are also survivors. Tree of Life undertake immediate response to cases of abuses and violations, and also delivers a long-term, community-based, healing services to survivors of torture and collective violence once the survivors are reintegrated into the community. Survivors plan an integral role in the healing process, we have not involved survivors in the immediate emergency response activities so far, other than as a referral mechanism.

Tree of Life Field Officers (who are mostly survivors) work closely with the Community Facilitators (all are survivors) in the delivery of our group-based healing process. The Tree of Life healing process comprises and three day healing workshop delivered in small groups of between 8-10 participants, each with a minimum of 2 Facilitators. The beneficiaries are then supported in the community and formally followed-up after three months.

All of the ToL Officers and the Facilitators have been through the healing process themselves prior to being incorporated into the program and they then undertake and two year training process before becoming Community Facilitators. A rigorous assessment and selection process is undertaken in identifying those survivors who have the qualities and the mental resilience to facilitate at workshops and undertake follow-up.

They then undergo a rigorous training, coaching and mentoring process and are gradually introduced to facilitation over a two-year period. They are assessed annually and are provided with on-going training and support by the ToL core team. Self-care and survivor well-being is integral to both the training and the ToL supervision process and Community Facilitators are supported to form their own support groups in their geographical location, which provides on-going support and creates a safe space to share experiences.

Those who do not have these qualities are trained to take on other complementary roles in the process, as workshop organisers or negotiators with the community members. They all become part of what we call “The Big Tree” and remain important members of the wider ToL family. ToL holds regular meetings (at least quarterly) with the Community Facilitators. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these meetings and the on-going training has been delivered through virtual platforms."

Should more rehabilitation centers do the same? Why?

"The Zimbabwean context of on-going use of torture and collective violence, with impunity for the perpetrators who have links with the politically powerful, has been a major barrier to accessing survivors of torture and human rights abuses. Being a survivor implemented program has meant that Tree of Life has been able to reach more victims and offer continuity of support, using the networks of the survivors in our network. They are a strong referral mechanisms and are able to encourage and reassure reluctant and fearful victims. They also form a strong support network at community level, so that on-going support is possible even in the most difficult of contexts over an extended period of time.

In addition, the ToL Community Facilitators genuinely know what it feels like to be subject the most unimaginably traumatic experiences and in the workshop they also share their own traumatic experiences. They are the living embodiment that it is possible to restore and move on in life with hope. Tree of Life has also noted how helping others heal and restore is an integral part of the healing process for the individual. It is key in giving survivors a sense of agency and self-worth."

Is there anything to be careful about when engaging torture survivors in the work that takes place at a rehabilitation center?

"There is a risk of harm both to the beneficiary and the survivor facilitating the process and, hence, Tree of Life is very careful to ensure that the survivors who deliver our therapeutic services are carefully assessed for suitability and are also closely monitored and supervised to avoid harm. As well as having a structured training program, the Facilitators are gradually introduced to Facilitation over an extended period and ate coached and mentored by other survivors and ToL Field Officers in this process. There is an annual review process to ensure that all our Community Facilitators, and indeed our own field officers, have the skills and resilience to undertake this work. They are supported by a qualified team comprising clinicians and practitioners with extensive experience of working with torture survivors and in a collective healing context.

As an organisation, it is vital to invest heavily supervision and care for the caregiver and to monitor the well-being of the survivors throughout the process. We undertake a detailed debrief with the Facilitators at the end of each day at the workshop and at the end of the process. Self care activities are included at all stages and we invest in self-care activities at every training workshop. We also encourage the Facilitators to take time out whenever they need it and offer access to clinical services if required – either internally or externally.

The other aspect that we are very careful about is that our Community Facilitators should not be active political actors (i.e., standing for elected office or within a political party, not actively campaigning politically). This is necessary to ensure the safety and security of the beneficiaries of the program and also to ensure access to sensitive contexts. Many have been activists in the past, but are willing to step down from this. Survivors who wish to remain activists and to undertake advocacy do not join the team of Facilitators but are supported by Tree of Life in other ways. In a number of cases, ToL Community Facilitators have later decided they wish to return to activism and advocacy, and step down form our network. They have claimed that being part of the Facilitation process has contributed considerably to their resilience and decision to become politically active again despite the risks."

“Working with survivors of torture has helped me to heal from my trauma, and the process has helped to understand that the journey of healing is not a one day thing but it is a process."

-Tree of Life Field Officer


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