Making Peace with the Past: A conversation with Issam Smeir
Dr. Smeir, can you start by telling us a little bit about your work in trauma therapy with refugees at the World Relief DuPage/Aurora Counseling Center?
I joined the World Relief DuPage office in September 2001, so I’m a veteran of 15 years here. That whole time I’ve been working with refugees in the Counseling Center. I’ve worked with a lot of different groups for the last 15 years…with the Somali Bantu, Burmese, Bhutanese, Rwandans, Burundians. Lately I’ve been working a lot with Iraqis, Iranians, and Afghanis. And of course over the last few years with the Syrian conflict, I’ve been working with some Syrians, as well.
The WRDA Counseling Center is focused specifically on the refugee population. Why do these particular individuals need trauma counseling?
The people we resettle typically have experienced some sort of trauma – either they’ve experienced it personally or they’ve witnessed other family members who have experienced it. And refugees are exposed to lots of different types of trauma, everything from their house being shelled, to seeing snipers shoot people in front of them, to surviving combat while serving alongside U.S. troops, to being separated from family when they flee, to being attacked for their race or language differences while living in a host country. So a lot of those that survive those events come [to the U.S.] with PTSD symptoms, which is what our bodies display after a traumatic event.
For people that have experienced all of this trauma – displacement from their homes, imprisonment, forced exile, rape, torture, etc. – what type of therapy do you use to help them improve?
There are different approaches to how we help them. One of the things I’ve been practicing for the last couple years is called Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET), which is a new modality. Basically, we ask people to tell their stories, and we desensitize them as they experience all kinds of emotions while they’re speaking. The idea is for them to remember what happened without having panic attacks. It requires around 12 sessions, but it is very good in decreasing the intensity of their symptoms. You can read more about the theory in Seeking Refuge, [the book I coauthored with Stephan Bauman and Matthew Soerens].
WRDA’s services are designed to help people achieve self-sufficiency and move toward healthy integration into the community. Where does trauma therapy fit within that context?
Typically, clinical intervention is required when a person is unable to fulfill some of their roles in life. So for an adult, the major role is to be a parent or a provider. For children, it’s to be a student. With the refugees, basically if they lose their ability to fulfill either of these roles, they fail in this country. So that’s when we intervene. We help them to handle these kind of symptoms…which is very important for them personally and for their families to thrive. So the role that we play is actually very essential in terms of self-sufficiency. They might get a job, but they can’t maintain the job if they are dealing with all of the symptoms on a daily or weekly basis.
Is trauma therapy a process that can only be undertaken by trained professionals, or is this something that volunteers, organizations, and community members can be involved in?
For some of this work, you need a trained clinician…especially for people who display intense PTSD symptoms. You need a professional who can do an assessment and process these emotions and feelings in a safe setting. But intervention by itself doesn’t work if there’s no broader therapeutic environment. The work by volunteers and community groups…is very healing. As an example, when an individual has trauma, that doesn’t mean that’s the only person that suffers. It could be the whole family. So that’s something that the volunteer could really help with – supporting the spouse and children.
Beyond your work here in DuPage & Aurora, you’ve also conducted many trainings in the Middle East and North Africa. Tell us a little bit more about that work?
Since the Arab Spring started in 2011, I’ve been traveling a lot to the region. I work in different countries, and my goal is to build a community of Arabic-speaking experts in the field of trauma rehabilitation. However my work has been focused lately on the Syrian church with the tremendous masses of people who have been traumatized there over the last five years – something like 400,000 have died, hundreds of thousands have been tortured and traumatized, and millions have been displaced. The local church is one of the few institutions in the country that still exists and that was actually strengthened [during the war], because people go to the church in a time of uncertainty and suffering. The church has become a place of refuge.
Every three or four months I travel to the region to meet with Christian leaders. We had a meeting a few weeks ago in Lebanon, and we had 30 Christian leaders who made the trip from Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, and elsewhere in Syria. I trained them in Narrative Exposure Therapy, and then I’m going to supervise them with this approach so they can actually help people who are suffering within the church. The church has to build capacity in this area. They cannot afford not to be involved in trauma rehabilitation. Prayers and a community of faith are extremely important, but we also know what happens inside the person’s mind, and there are tools that the church can give them to help.
Are there any recent success stories of the refugees you’ve worked with here in the U.S. that stand out to you?
There are a lot of individuals who were debilitated but have done very well. There is a young Iraqi man in his thirties who served in the military who arrived earlier this year. He served along with the U.S. Army there, and he witnessed terrible things of people being killed in front of him. He was depressed when he came here and was struggling severely. He wouldn’t go outside. He couldn’t work. He was crying all the time. For a long time he was debilitated, but after four or five months of trauma therapy, he is a different person. Now he’s working. He’s connected to the community now. He helps out with other refugees. It was a great success story.
The Counseling Center is one of the programs at WRDA that relies heavily on financial support from churches, foundations, and people like you. By giving to WRDA, you can ensure that refugees like this Iraqi man can continue to receive these life-changing services in 2017 and beyond. Visit http://worldreliefdupageaurora.org/donate to find out more about how you can make an impact on these families’ lives.
Remembering Syria this Christmas. You can make a difference!
The Syrian civil war has raged on for over five years, creating one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. As recent news out of the city of Aleppo shows, the violence is far from over, and the numbers of people who have been displaced in the Syria conflict continue to be staggering. As we enter the holiday season, celebrating the birth of Jesus who himself was displaced due to violent persecution, may we be compelled to pray and to act out of the sacrificial love that is at the true heart of Christmas.
This month, WRDA welcomed several more refugee families who fled the war in Syria years ago, and who are embarking on a new life in an unknown land. Pray that they will experience a warm welcome and begin to heal from the trauma they have experienced.
Pray for the people of Aleppo. For safe passage for those fleeing the city. For food, water, and shelter for civilians. For humanitarian organizations to have access to those in need of care. For shelter and resources for all those living in refugee camps and fleeing to neighboring countries.
Pray that the U.S. will continue to be a place of welcome to those who have fled the atrocities in Syria and elsewhere around the world.
Stay informed by following those who are reporting from Syria or working on the ground there. Show your solidarity with refugees and your desire to welcome them by signing the “We Welcome Refugees" statement of solidarity, which will be shared with our elected officials. Give to support trauma therapy at WRDA among Syrian and other refugees here in our community, or to the organizations who are responding on the ground in Syria and neighboring countries, including World Relief. (For a list of such organizations, visit https://wewelcomerefugees.com/).
This holiday season invites us to reflect, pray and wait with hope for that time when all wars will cease and all things will be made new. And while we wait, we are invited to live lives of love and mercy because of God’s great love for us. May we do both as we remember the Syrian people this Christmas.