“This is a hard topic because it’s human nature to avoid pain and to dissociate from painful information and conversations. But it’s important for us, as privileged safe people to open our eyes to suffering.” Eleanor Striplin Brindle
This week I interview my daughter Eleanor Striplin Brindle who did humanitarian work in the Middle East for several years. In 2015, Eleanor was part of two trauma workshops in Erbil, Iraq for Iraqi girls who had been captured and made into sex slaves by ISIS. These girls were part of the Yazidi people group whose men were mass murdered as part of ISIS’ s ethnic cleansing. These girls and women were taken into slavery and routinely raped and physically tortured. Eleanor also organized and led an art therapy program for Syrian refugee children in 2016. She has seen first hand the deep wounds caused by trauma. She is presently working towards an MS in Psychology with an emphasis in crisis management and trauma.
Eleanor, how did you get involved with art/dance therapy as part of trauma healing?
I have always been interested in post-conflict resolution. My senior project at George Mason University was on art therapy and refugees. After college, I really didn’t have an immediate outlet for this interest. I didn’t want to go to grad school at the time. I started doing humanitarian work overseas in Turkey. Some ex-pat acquaintances doing humanitarian work in Iraq emailed me in 2015 and asked me to come be a part of a trauma workshop for Iraqi girls who recently had escaped captivity from ISIS. Two weeks later, my husband Patrick and I are flying to Erbil. I participated in a workshop in July of 2015 and then again in November 2015.
In 2016, I was living in Turkey, and the country had had a huge influx of Syrian refugees escaping the civil war. I realized this was an opportunity to address trauma in children. I put together a team to dialogue with displaced Syrians in my area. The leaders of this refugee community were very interested in our help. The children were in a makeshift school in Pod-like storage containers. We were able to help organize financial assistance for the school and start group art therapy classes for the 7-12 year olds. We routinely worked with three classes of these children for 1.5 years. At that point the Turkish government forced the school to shut down.
How did you prepare yourself for these programs?
Before leaving for Iraq, I binged-read everything I could find online about dance/movement therapy and visual art therapy for groups. I emailed and Skyped with two art therapists in NYC and London. I began to put together a program for the girls in Iraq. As far as the Syrian children in Turkey, I modified the art therapy format for young children. I wrote a field manual on this modified program.
How did you see trauma manifested both physically and emotionally in the young Iraqi women?
In Iraq, the girls were between the ages of 12-22. I vividly remember the first night of the first workshop. They had come from the refugee camp to the safe house where they would stay the 2 weeks for the workshop. The girls were comatose zombies, clearly alive but they seemed mostly dead. They moved very slowly, blank faces, lifeless eyes, frozen like a deer in the headlights. After the two weeks, parts of their personalities were beginning to come back. It takes a very long time to heal from trauma, but the girls showed improvement through the variety of ways they had to express their frozen, pent-up feelings. Also we had a local female doctor who addressed their physical needs which were many as you can imagine.
How were the workshops organized? What programs were offered?
We had a combination of activities that would either help equip them for their future (most were going to relocate to Germany on the invitation of the German government) or that would be good for their souls. Most of these girls had never been educated in any way because their Yazidi tradition did not value teaching girls. So we taught them how to hold a pencil and write their names, they learned basic English words and world geography- these girls had no idea of how big the world is.
As far as the soul-enhancing activities, these included gardening, movement therapy because trauma and all emotions really get stored in the body, and movement helps work out these emotions. They had group art therapy classes because creativity is necessary for mental and emotional wellbeing. One girl commented through a translator that her brother had had a paint set but she wasn’t allowed to use it. This was her first time to release her own creative spirit. The girls also gardened which too relaxes and releases emotions.
We also taught nutrition and hygiene and what that looks like when living in a tent in a refugee camp. They needed to know how to combat illness and disease while living in an overcrowded camp.
Moving on to the art therapy program for the Syrian refugee children, how was their trauma of the war and then being displaced manifested in them?
The principal of the makeshift school was very excited about the art therapy program because they were seeing lots of trauma symptoms in the children. The kids were acting out behaviorally which makes sense because children do not have the necessary verbal or writing skills to effectively express what is going on inside of them. Our classes incorporated creative art activities partnered with play. What is stolen from traumatized children is childhood, and play is a key fundamental aspect of healthy growth. Play restores main components of what has been lost and begins to release stored up emotions in a healthy way. Art and play are perfect avenues for this expression. We sometimes take for granted the benefits of play in a safe western environment, but it is key to have healthy children.
In closing, what kind of treatment is available to groups of traumatized children? We have so many hurting children now, and thanks to instant communication we realize the magnitude.
On the record, I don’t know. There is an emphasis within the field of psychology and child development on the healing of trauma and what that looks like in the developing world. It is a big topic of discussion and research. There is never enough planning, money or people to deal with the enormous problems trauma causes whether man-made or natural disasters. It’s always been part of life, but we are still ill-equipped to handle it. It’s wonderful that there is an emphasis in the field of psychology. Hopefully we asking the right questions which will lead to some solutions. It’s an international problem.
If you have any questions for Eleanor, please ask through the comment section.
All photographs credited to E.S.Brindle