The Worst of All Horrors / Foreign Policy

Screen Shot 2014-03-09 at 8.11.09 AMThese days, no one seems to have endured just one kind of life-jarring experience in the conflict areas of Iraq. The suffering is multilayered: trauma caused by having witnessed or being victims of Islamic State violence, being displaced or living in an area that may come under attack, facing torture or sexualized violence — the list goes on and on.

Take the case of a teenage girl from the Sinjar area in northwestern Iraq. She and her family didn’t have the means to escape to a safe place when the Islamic State attacked her town a few months ago, nor did they have weapons to fight, says her treating psychotherapist, Sherwan A. Hassan of the Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights, a group that offers free rehabilitation services to survivors of torture and inhuman treatment in Iraq. Eventually, the family fled into the dusty mountains, where they spent 10 days without food and with very little water or sleep. They were terrified of being attacked again. The adults and their daughter made it through; a baby brother and sister, however, died.

After crisscrossing into Syria and back into Iraq on an arduous journey, the parents of the girl realized she needed help. She wasn’t speaking and was physically unable to get up much of the time. A trip over the border into Turkey to seek care proved fruitless — there were no professionals who knew what to do with her. Finally, after arriving in the Iraqi Kurdistan city of Dohuk, the family was referred to the Jiyan Foundation. By now living in a state of prolonged displacement, the girl was cutting her arms and saying things like, “I am crazy,” “I am worthless,” and “I have lost my mind,” Hassan recounts.

Hassan, who looked very tired in a recent Skype interview, describes how, in his first six sessions with the girl, he tried relaxation therapy and family therapy. In the next session, he will try scream therapy, which is when a patient vents repressed anger or frustration through yelling. Whatever works at this point. The same goes for the three or four other patients Hassan treats each day.

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