Haitians find trauma healing integral to post-earthquake recovery
December 15, 2011
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — With dignified humility, Edouarnus Estivil calls himself a direct victim of the January 2010 earthquake. It destroyed his Port-au-Prince home. It paralyzed his sister, and it killed his mother, the head of his household.
The earthquake, it seems, altered his life forever. A year later, his life was altered once again — by a trauma-healing training.
“After the earthquake, I didn’t know how I was going to face life. I wasn’t sure how I could go on,” said Estivil, 30. “The trauma training allowed me to give another direction to my life and set some goals.”
The training helped him begin to process trauma stemming from various aspects of his life, not just from the earthquake.
“Before I took the training, I didn’t know the level of sickness inside of me,” he said. “Now I know.”
Wozo, the organization that runs the trauma-healing program, began in October 2010 with funds from six denominations and organizations, including Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and the Church of the Brethren.
The Haitian program is an adaptation of Eastern Mennonite University’s Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience program, which began after the Sept. 11, 2011, attacks in the U.S. The program also addresses the broader topics of conflict, justice and peace.
In Haitian culture, the wozo tree is a well-known symbol of resilience and restoration. If the tree gets knocked over, it can straighten up again after a few days and continue growing. There is no better Creole word for resilience, according to executive director Michel Garly.
Garly, 34, who was an MCC Haiti national staff worker for three years, participated in the first trauma-healing training in August 2010. In January 2011, he led the first public training for Haitians. Since then, 248 people have participated in 10 trainings.
“The idea is not only for [Wozo staff] to lead trainings but for people who have been trained at level two to help train people at level one,” Garly said.
Estivil has done exactly that.
After conducting research in southeast Haiti with Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), he learned that while some people had received lots of material support from multiple organizations, none of them received trauma healing.
So Estivil wrote a proposal to CRWRC to replicate the Wozo program for those he works among.
Estivil then led six Haitians — three men and three women — through the five-day training. In turn, these six people have each reached 350 people. That’s 2,100 people in less than nine months.
“People have responded very positively,” said Estivil, who works for the Christian Reformed Church of Haiti, a CRWRC partner. “Participants often ask the trainers for their phone numbers so they can keep in contact.”
The trainings, Estivil said, help people address all aspects of trauma: physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual.
“People sometimes think that a person is only [traumatized] physically, but there are issues inside that may not come out,” he said. “This trauma program allows us to address all types of problems.”
Gary Auguste, who took the level-one training, noted that trauma healing is not just for earthquake victims.
“We live in a society where everyone has a bitterness about something, and we are not normally able to share it,” he said. “We may have headaches and nightmares and not even know we are traumatized.”
Auguste, 33, said he will always remember how the training gave people the freedom to cry. “It’s one thing we need to let people do,” he said.
Harry Thelusmai, Wozo program officer, said all the trainings follow the same format, regardless of whether participants have earthquake trauma.
“An earthquake is a type of violence, and if a person is a victim of any type of violence, they can find tools to help them,” he said.
The training discusses the cycle of violence, including how victims can become aggressors.
“If you want to be healed from violence, you need to break the cycle of violence,” Thelusmai said. “If you can break that cycle, you can benefit yourself and all of society.”
Trauma is universal, he said, and even those not already affected by trauma may be at some point in the future.
“This program is one of the best things Haiti has received after the earthquake,” Thelusmai said.
Though he praises the organizations that fund Wozo (and his job), he wishes the Haiti government would fund a program like it.
“It is a blessing for us to run this program,” he said. “People are able to face the reality of life because of this program. Our vision is to have a resilient country, a country that can face the issues we have.”