Graduate student Danielle Fischbach taps into the nation’s rich culture of storytelling to bring relief to traumatized genocide survivors.
Can the simple act of setting words on paper lift the emotional burden of people who lived through genocide? This is the question that Danielle Fischbach, who is completing a Master’s degree in Expressive Therapies at Lesley University, set out to answer in Rwanda. Knowing of the country’s strong culture of storytelling, she hoped to infuse this aspect into an expressive writing program that would help genocide survivors reclaim their peace of mind.
Fischbach’s project reflects a larger movement in the field of counseling and psychology toward an awareness of the need for culturally relevant programs to help countries like Rwanda. Western ideas about which interventions to use with specific populations are giving way to a dialogue with the citizens and leaders in those countries. Not only are more U.S. students doing fieldwork in developing nations, but also greater numbers of students from those countries are studying in the U.S. and returning home to build clinical practices and to teach others in their communities.
This rich exchange of people and ideas is proving key to healing the wounds inflicted by poverty and violence. “Art and creativity are cross-cultural,” says Catherine Koverola, dean of Lesley University’s Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences. “That’s why Expressive Therapies—art, music, dance, and creative writing—translate well to other cultures.”
Political unrest, violence, and conflict take their toll on individuals as well as on societies. In the case of Rwanda, the atrocities committed during the 1994 genocide left physical and psychological scars and contributed to stress-related health problems. The situation is compounded by an absence of mental health care providers and by the stigma attached to individuals who seek such care.
While the government has made great strides in reunifying Rwanda and rebuilding the economy, the emotional fallout persists. “People go on with their lives, but the genocide is never far from their thoughts,” says Fischbach. She notes that perpetrators of the genocide, when released after their prison terms, frequently return home to the same village where they committed their crimes, to live alongside relatives of the slain. “There are constant reminders of what happened.”
Fischbach first traveled to Rwanda as part of a pilot program in the summer of 2012. She formed a close relationship with a group of nuns at the Benebikira Convent in the town of Save. While these women had courageously moved beyond the ordeal, their deep sadness remained, Fischbach says. She wanted to test whether expressive writing could be used to help other genocide survivors “create a coherent narrative and structure out of the chaos they had experienced.” She returned earlier this summer to complete her thesis research.
Fischbach explains that previous efforts by international organizations to aid Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide were sometimes viewed as misguided and culturally insensitive. However, the expressive arts—particularly music, art, film, and theater—have subsequently been used across Rwanda to help people cope with trauma. These artistic endeavors are closer to traditional approaches to healing and have been received positively.
Given this receptivity to the expressive arts, Fischbach wondered if Rwanda’s strong oral tradition, which includes everything from poetry and folk stories to morality tales and historic accounts, might be fertile ground for an expressive writing intervention. Since the genocide, a new literary genre has emerged involving eyewitness accounts, essays, and fiction, so it seemed plausible that her project, which acknowledges the oral tradition and capitalizes on interest in this new literature, could improve participants’ lives.
Fischbach says her experience in Rwanda has helped her refine her approach as a clinician and increase her appreciation of the strength of the Rwandan people. “Working here has helped me develop a level of understanding and compassion that allows me to truly understand and hear what people are saying—and what they are not saying,” she says.
The cultural insights that students like Fischbach gain from fieldwork reinforce the vital importance of these programs. Lesley University is building partnerships with governments in developing countries that would increase the number of overseas Expressive Therapies internships for U.S. students and could pave the way for more students from abroad to train at Lesley. A partnership with Guyana’s Ministry of Education has provided the opportunity, funded by UNICEF, for 13 Guyanese child welfare and social workers to pursue master’s degrees in Trauma Sensitive Assessment, Intervention, and Counseling through Lesley University.
Rwanda will see the next round of Lesley students embark on internships at the Benebikira Convent school starting in December, with additional students arriving in June, 2014. Dean Koverola, who recently made her first site visit to Rwanda and also met with Fischbach, was deeply affected by the kindness and resilience of the Rwandan people. The trip also strengthened her resolve to create similar opportunities for other students. “I’m committed to sending as many of our students abroad as we can, because there’s no substitute for being there,” she says.
Fischbach agrees. “It is such an honor to be welcomed by the sisters and to hear their stories. By traveling here, I found a completely unexpected direction for my thesis that was inspired by these remarkable women.”
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In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, Lesley's Expressive Therapies program worked in conjunction with Boston’s Emmanuel Episcopal Church to present a public forum that promoted healing through artistic expression. Learn More.