JFS Perspectives

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Arabic-speaking Women’s Group Brings Hope Through Story



“I have ownership of my own life story—that means I have the choice to change it and make it better.”
JFS’s recent Arabic-speaking Women’s Wellness Group, facilitated by the Refugee Mental Health program, was a smashing success due in large part to the courage of the women who participated. The long and challenging 18-inch journey from their heads to their hearts directly correlated with their long and arduous journeys from Iraq and Syria to Colorado.

It takes courage to revisit past trauma and it’s no small endeavor to reframe traumatic life events into a story that is meaningful to life in the U.S. The therapeutic focus was to affect restorative attitudes toward stability, well-being, and increased resiliency.

“I have friends now.”
Fifteen women ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s came together and experienced an amazing transformation. The life discovery of empowerment was initially met with significant misgivings of trust, but concluded with the realization of deep connection through shared experience and camaraderie.

Opening the first session with a positive “I am… (kind, thoughtful, smart, etc.)” statement was a challenge because, as they hesitantly responded, they also told us that speaking positively about oneself is not generally understood or practiced in Middle Eastern culture, especially among women. It is seen as being overly prideful or boastful. On reflection, some women shared that this exercise was particularly meaningful in learning to speak truth about oneself.

“We can express ourselves here like we can’t anywhere else.”
Hope was initiated by finding connections and consistencies in life narratives through symbols that invoked powerful messages of personal significance among group members. A particularly salient understanding of the cultural context was that some women in the group shared that even among their families, they felt they had no value and no time for themselves. Unless this idea is challenged by the women who hold these views of themselves, it will likely continue to foster a sense of hopelessness and low self-esteem. In a group exercise, they practiced writing positive statements about each group member to demonstrate respect, honor, and value. The exercise concluded with affirmations—and a few tears.

“I have learned I am talented, and my children cannot believe I did this.”
Most sessions had two components: one dedicated to group psychotherapy and the second for wellness and art expression that tied the two sessions together. Some examples were jewelry making, flower arranging, and creating a painted canvas masterpiece of life story through symbols. Art therapy promotes individual expression and is recognized as an effective intervention for trauma survivors. Art encourages self-care and wellness through building mindfulness and decision-making while regulating emotions. One participant shared her personal masterpiece with her therapist after session, and hung it on her wall at home as a reminder of “comfort.” She expressed a desire to continue using art at home as a coping skill and a way to connect with her grandchildren.

“I am very sad because the group is over. We became like family.”
Many women expressed sadness at the close of the sessions because they would no longer have a place to go to be understood on such a deep and personal level. After many hugely impactful weeks of practicing and reinforcing positive attributes in themselves and each other, the women were very emotional at the close of group. As staff in Refugee Mental Health, we are hopeful for that spark of connection to continue among these brave women.

Some positive symbolic interaction images discussed in Hope Through Story:

flower     dove      butterfly    leaping    

Kelli HayesBy Kelli Hayes, MSW Intern, Refugee Mental Health

Kelli Hayes has worked at JFS in the Refugee Mental Health department since November 2015 and has served as an intern since August 2017. She is using her JFS experiences to further her social work concentration in advanced clinical behavioral health at Colorado State University, where she is pursuing a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree.


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