One of the necessary first steps of doing international trauma work is to listen to the stories of trauma. There are two main reasons. First, it can be healing for the teller to tell their story to someone safe and caring (if those leading the story telling project follow some basic rules). Second, stories often reveal useful information that may determine future trauma recovery intervention strategies.
But let us also admit there can be a downside to getting others to tell their story, especially those who are impoverished and in great need:
- When “helpers” or journalists helicopter in to hear the stories, the victims may not feel free to not tell their stories because of the help they hope to receive
- Outside helpers may repeat the stories in such a way as to sensationalize or to gain more money for future trips. While some reasons to tell may be noble and good, does the retelling of the trauma put the victim at risk for retaliation?
- Getting victims to tell their story may first raise hopes for change and then dash them if there isn’t a plan for follow-up
- Sometimes outsiders listen only to help themselves feel better (see, we cared enough to listen) but not do anything to help
In less than one month I will be on my way to do just this kind of listening in both the DRC and Rwanda. The challenge for us is to listen and invite story-telling in ways that leaves victims with immediate help and hope and a viable plan for the future (as it pertains to what to do about their trauma).
But we face some hurdles in trying to hear the right (real) or most important stories.
1. Hearing the real stories. Sometimes stories get cleaned up in an effort to tell us what others think we want to hear. Other stories are told with a slant in order to avoid stirring up other trouble.
2. Avoiding our own biases. Some victims may be perpetrators even as they are also victims. It is easy to categorize individuals in such a way that we stop listening to the pain or the recovery. We can fail to see how victims handle temptations for revenge or how perpetrators act humanely.
3. Lost in translation. Most of the stories we will hear are going to be told to us in a language other than English. That means the story we hear may be the words of the translator rather than the victim.
There is a fine line between listening for learning or helping and listening for curiosity. It is not always clear where that line is but pray for us as we seek to listen in ways that bring health and a plan for healing. We do not want to merely rubberneck like those driving past a bad accident, looking but not providing any help.
One sign that we are listening well is that the victim not only recalls the terrible things from their past but that they also recall how they survived and have some sense of being empowered in their present and future.