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Skating on Thin Ice: A Reflection on Secondary Trauma in Humanitarian Work

Georgie Nink

“She stands mute before the emptiness of evil, fleeing the insufficiency of any known system of explanation. Survivors of atrocity of every age and every culture come to a point in their testimony where all questions are reduced to one, spoken more in bewilderment than in outrage: Why? The answer is beyond human understanding.”

Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery (p. 178, 2015)

A story is fleeting; you can easily pass by and overlook it. Like a tree's shadow on a sidewalk, shimmering on hot pavement, gently moving and shifting. You can miss it as you walk by, or you can stop and bend down to examine its exquisite, leafy detail. A story comes and quickly goes again. You need to listen intently to catch it.

When I started doing humanitarian work, I didn't know how to listen intently, quietly, and with my whole body. I learned, later. It's the kind of listening you can only practice while moving slowly. I worked in my current job, at Questscope, for one year before I learned how to slow down and step off the hamster wheel. I didn't have this skill at first, when the overwhelming volume of work and my self-doubt of being up to the task kept me in constant motion.

I work with Syrian youth in Za'atari refugee camp, two square miles of desert land which hosts 80,000 Syrian refugees in the north of Jordan. At Questscope, we have an amazing, hardworking team of Syrian youth “team leaders” who are building a youth centre, a safe space for young people to come and learn, teach, play sports, make art, and feel like normal teenagers.

Back in Syria, our team leaders were engineers, university students, teachers, and business analysts. In the refugee camp, they became soccer coaches, art teachers, librarians, and mentors for other youth. They are proud of their work. When walking down the main street of the camp, they often see former students or players from the youth centre who run to greet them, and they hold their heads high.

My daily work, with five Jordanian colleagues, is making sure the youth centre has everything it needs to function well – funding, resources, training, connections with people and organisations supporting refugees – and working with the Syrian team leaders to navigate the challenges of the harsh camp setting. Inside the walls of the camp, the air is dusty and carries a sense of hopelessness.

Syrian team leaders plant trees around the edges of the Youth Center © Georgie Nink/ Questscope, 2015

It took me awhile to slow down. A year was a long time to spend on the hamster wheel, but I wasn't able to let go of the idea that if I could just "finish everything" I would have served my Syrian colleagues well. (Naively, I still believed that service is a one-way street in humanitarian work. They need us; we serve them. It wasn't until later that I realized how much I learned from and owed to them.) Still, wanting to serve my Syrian colleagues well came out of the desire to act, a desire that runs deeply in all of us when we are forced to face a humanitarian catastrophe at this scale.

In the past years, we have come right up to the edge of the mass of war and peered in, trying to make out the other side but finding only blackness. Still we cannot see the end. Facing this, the need to help, to give, or to act, runs deeply in us. It can lead to hyperactivity, a wild energy, one of many possible consequences of secondary exposure to trauma, that is, of bearing witness to others' pain.

In her book Trauma Stewardship, trauma researcher Laura van Dernoot Lipsky writes of hyperactivity pervading humanitarian work:

"Overwork and over scheduling may cause our bodies to secrete adrenaline, a hormone that keeps us alert and racing around but may block our awareness of the feelings underneath...We find that workplaces often adopt a very harried pace even when there's no crisis. Action for its own sake keeps people moving, makes them superficially productive, and limits their capacity for reflection about their lives. This becomes seductive, even to workers, because we can confuse being amped up, attending to crises (some of which we create), and having a sense of being needed with being fully awake, living life, and being effective.” (Lipsky, 2009)

When I slowed down, it was not because the workload lessened, but because I recognised my oversight, an oversight perhaps common for beginners: being so focused on my to-do list that I was missing the most important parts of my work which were unfolding right in front of me, when I was too busy to notice. The realisation that I was disconnected with the people around me, and unaware of their wellbeing, was the catalyst for deliberately changing my approach to my work.

I began to practice listening intently. It was a lesson in moving slowly, reading body language, and straining to hear what was said and unsaid in conversations. I began to observe small twitches of the mouth, to read brief glances, and to hear between the lines when people spoke. I found that these subtleties are the key to unlocking moods, hidden inner conflicts, and the micro-events that determine a day's waves of emotion. Naturally I had missed it all when I was racing to get everything done. The more I practiced this kind of listening, the more in tune I felt with the people around me.

In time, I was able to connect more deeply with the Syrian colleagues who were part of my daily routine. We sipped Turkish coffee in the boiling desert heat. I stopped beginning conversations with “Did you get the report done?” and began instead with “How are you feeling today?” I showed them photos of my family and my world, bright pictures on my phone that seemed of another planet, colors not dulled by the dust around us. I listened as they told their stories, sometimes dark and weighed down with sadness, sometimes punctuated by booming laughter.

One morning in early spring, when the air was still cool before the day's heat set in, I was sitting in the kitchen at the youth centre with my Syrian colleague Khalid*. He is often the most boisterous person in the room, and only once or twice have I seen him brooding and reflective. He is usually wound up tight with energy, sitting on the edge of his chair or bursting out of it to make a point.

But this morning he was quiet. He told of the night he left Syria. “The car picked us up from our house in the middle of the night, to drive us to the border. On the way we stopped in many small towns. In one place we got out, we went into this empty house. We were picking up passengers. The house we entered was empty except for dead bodies, in the edges and corners of the room. There were piles and piles of them. They were stacked on top of each other, at least three bodies deep. We got back into the car and kept driving.”

As Khalid spoke, my imagination took over and I pictured the night, the bodies, the inside of the house, the car, the other passengers. Did the desert night air greet them with its chilly breeze? Did the driver speed? Did he fear turning the headlights on?

I knew I couldn't fully understand Khalid's story, because of the many barriers that exist between his telling of the story and my comprehension of it: the wide chasm between speaker and listener. Could Khalid accurately remember that night, which happened over 2 years ago? Could he access the traumatic memory, which is buried deep, and could he put something so visual into words? In setting out to tell his story, Khalid faces the monumental task of fitting something as big and bulky as a trauma event into a simple frame, for me, the listener. It is like trying to fit an elephant into a computer case.

As I listen, I inevitably fill the frame with my own version of the story, based on my own experiences, associations, and imagination. The words he chose, “Piles and piles ... middle of the night ... empty house,” cause me to imagine a scenario that may be close or not close at all to what really happened. So personal and specific are trauma events, it may be impossible for a secondhand witness to comprehend them fully. But – is that level of comprehension needed for the trauma survivor to reach some healing through the interaction? Can unconditional listening and emotional support sometimes be enough, for that moment?

I learned, later, that I don't need to fully understand Khalid's story. This is a trap we sometimes fall into as humanitarian workers. We get caught up in wanting to know every detail of the traumas faced by survivors with whom we work. We want to understand the feeling they felt every step of the way. We want to know it intimately, to hold it in our bodies and minds. Against our better judgment, we walk the path of one torture survivor, or imagine how it is for a child who is beaten every night by his parents. We want to feel their fears and angers as our own, and to dive into them for a few moments, and then quickly resurface in the safe place of never having gone through it.

We want this because the war and suffering is so big that we sense the need to grasp a tiny part of it. We feel that if we can comprehend a small part, we will be more grounded instead of floating in a huge void left behind by the violence. We seek something that can anchor us.

View of Questcope youth centre in Za'atari camp © Georgie Nink/ Questscope, 2016

This process is a natural human response to being exposed to the pain of others: we grasp for closure and certainty as a defense mechanism against the overwhelming nature of the trauma (Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery, pp 179-180). Responding to others' trauma in this way, we parallel the reaction of trauma survivors. Trauma is invalidating, threatening our very existence and forcing us to question fundamental beliefs we previously held. In the long healing process, the search for something concrete to “hold on to” is the mind's way of rejecting the shadows of uncertainty, self-doubt, and blame cast by the traumatic event.

However, though we try to reject it, uncertainty is inevitable for both the speaker and the listener when recounting the trauma story. With practice, we can tolerate and even embrace not being sure of what really happened.

Letting go of the desire for certainty, I understood it can sometimes be enough to be an unconditional listener. Unconditional listening is sitting still in the face of another's pain, not squirming away from it, and conveying to the storyteller that you are willing to listen with your undivided attention for as long as needed. You can't solve the problem but you can face it alongside him. This emotional support, whether from family, friends, coworkers, or therapists, is critical for progress toward healing.

When I began this work, I attributed my hyperactivity to being behind, or having a lot to do. Now I realise it was a defense mechanism, used to shield myself from bearing witness to the pain of others. I had that wild energy, and I hurled it at anything that popped up in front of me.

The opposite of hyperactivity is not doing nothing, but rather practicing being present in each moment of this work. Lipsky writes, “The early American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, 'In skating over thin ice, our safety is in our speed.' Our goal is the opposite: When we arrive at a frightening place, we want to slow down enough to be curious about what is happening within ourselves." (Lipsky, p.12, 2009).

In the beginning, I skated quickly on thin ice, keeping myself busy out of fear of what slowing down might mean for my ability to process pain. Once I developed the courage to slow down and listen, what I found and heard did not kill my spirit but instead made me more connected with my coworkers and more grounded in my work. My ability to listen openly and without judgment was sharpened, so I could build my own resiliency and capacity to do my work well.

* name changed for protection

Georgie Nink is Program Officer for Youth and Protection at Questscope for Social Development in the Middle East. She provides technical program support, monitoring and evaluation, program design and development, and case referral support for Questscope's youth program in Za'atari Camp. She graduated from Tufts University in 2015

Feature photo credit: A view from the youth centre at sunset in Za'atari camp © Georgie Nink/Questscope, 2016.

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