It was getting to know an 18-year-old Pakistani boy she remembers as Ibrahim that Tanja Weiss first became curious about different people from different backgrounds, and how she might learn to help them.
“He was so small for his age and could barely communicate after being kept in total isolation by his father at their shop for years until he ran away,” said Weiss, now a social worker at Oasis, an IRCT Member Centre in Denmark. “It was my job to create a relationship with him and find out if he had suffered any developmental damage.”
Tanja Weiss, an expert in trauma recovery from Denmark’s Oasis centre. Photo credit: Erik Albertsen
Slowly over the weeks of her training at the Crisis Centre in Nørrebro, Ibrahim began to trust Weiss enough to open up. “He told me lots of things I didn’t know about. He opened my eyes to other worlds, other ways of living, and I became more and more curious about him.”
The lesson that stuck with Weiss, and which she carried on into her role as the then youngest ever social worker treating refugees, including survivors of torture, for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at Oasis, was that assumptions about successful rehabilitation can often be misleading.
“At that time we hardly ever talked to the parents. We assumed all teenager wanted to be independent from their parents. But for Ibrahim, even though his father had mistreated him, he really wanted to reconnect with him. There was much more emphasis on the collective than the individual.”
Two decades on from her experiences with Ibrahim, Weiss has helped hundreds of seriously traumatised individuals along the long path to recovery.
“The complexity of the work is still very interesting after all these years. To see people grow, people who have been very damaged, who have suffered great misfortune in their lives, that is why I do my job. To give people hope for the future, which is so essential.”
Weiss knows that extreme stress takes a terrible toll on both body and mind.
“One of the refugees I treated came to Denmark from a refugee camp in Rwanda. She lost her parents when she was 14 and had to look after her two younger sisters. When she was 23, her boyfriend got cancer and died. She convinced herself it was her fault, that she had caused the cancer. That it what PTSD can do with your mind.”
Progress towards recovery is often painful and slow. “It takes a long time before the body and mind is ok. The feeling that somebody trusts you, somebody listens to you and understands you. We work with people who have no trust in anybody and often feel a lot of guilt about surviving when others did not.”
Many of Weiss’ survivors also display symptoms of extreme stress in their bodies, suffering headaches and acute pains that move from limb to limb. But with enough time and care, many make a successful recovery, and some even take up the job themselves. “The refugee from Rwanda is now training to become a social worker herself,” said Weiss. “That’s when it is most satisfying: to meet someone later on who is making a success of their new life.”
Since she began social work in 1997, Weiss has seen first-hand how frequently changing laws and a hardening of the political atmosphere towards refugees and asylum seekers in Denmark have impacted lives and recoveries.
“The way we used to meet refugees was more tolerant when I began my work. It has become very political now. It feels like the laws have been changed a hundred times over the years. That uncertainty makes rehabilitation very difficult. For example, a Syrian woman I treat is facing return to Damascus. She has been urged by the immigration authorities to produce evidence that she may face persecution if returned. I know she has photos of herself at demonstrations and helping the wounded. But she is afraid to show those as she fears Denmark has an agreement with Assad. She is also worried her son would have to join the Syrian army. In that kind of situation we can only really do damage control. And it affects the whole family.”
Two decades on, the approach to treatment has also changed, said Weiss. The focus has shifted from the individual to the individual in the context of their family relationships. Just as Ibrahim predicted, all those years ago.
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Established at the behest of Denmark as an annual event to speak out against torture and support survivors throughout the world, 26 June marks the moment in 1987 when the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT) came into effect. Today, the Convention has been ratified by 165 states.