Students Research Trauma and Community, From Cape Town to Hartford

Anthropology Majors present their Findings during CUGS Common Hour

Trauma can take many forms, and the alternatives for coping are equally varied. Two Trinity anthropology majors presented their research on just that at a March 11 Common Hour at the Center for Urban and Global Studies (CUGS), the latest installment in the Center’s “Global Vantage Point” series.

Volunteering with New Beginnings, a group that uses storytelling as therapy for refugee women, anthropology major Annie Arnzen ’14, became interested in the role that storytelling plays in coping with trauma. In the spring of 2013, after being awarded a Student Initiated Research Grant, she went to Cape Town, South Africa, to study the role that storytelling plays for victims of gender-based violence, an experience that touches one in three women in Cape Town. In fact, domestic violence has been illegal only since 1996.

Arnzen arrived at the Saartije Baartman Centre for Women and Children, which bills itself as a “one-stop centre for abused women and children” in South Africa. A member of the staff invited Arnzen to facilitate the storytelling support group, an offer that she initially declined to avoid the ethical conflicts it could pose for her research.

Arnzen began by observing the parenting support group: the only group facilitated by a professional psychologist and not a volunteer. When participants hesitated to volunteer their parenting challenges, the facilitator called on one of the women in the group. The woman explained that she had been abused by her husband until his death the year before. After his death, her 27-year-old son became her abuser.

The facilitator reacted with surprise and announced that she had never heard of such a case before, putting the victim and her heartbreaking story on display for the entire group. Arnzen felt disillusioned about the direction her research might be heading, and she reconsidered the offer to facilitate the storytelling group.

Arnzen drew on her experience with New Beginnings, and had seven prepared storytelling prompts: one for each week that she would be at the Saartije Baartman Center. Though the group got off to a strong start, their progress quickly slowed and the group began to unravel. Arnzen then had a conversation with a woman that helped her to understand the challenges they were facing.

She stopped by the room of a woman whom she hadn’t seen in any of the support groups and invited her to join. “Give it a try,” she said. “It might be better than you think.”

“How dare you,” the woman responded, explaining that the turnover among staff and volunteers left them retelling their stories over and over with each new arrival. Instead of moving forward, the victims were asked to relive their trauma repeatedly. Arnzen wondered if their storytelling group might be feeding into this cycle.

The next time they met, Arnzen didn’t ask about the trauma they had experienced or the challenges they faced. She presented the group with this prompt: A carrot, an egg, and coffee all face the same adversity – boiling water – but each reacts different. The carrot becomes soft, the egg hardens, and the coffee changes the water. Which are you?

The prompt led to an active discussion, and the woman who had previously not been involved even joined and made valuable contributions to the group.

To her research question – Is storytelling healing? – Arnzen found that it very much depends on experiences, context, and the audience. She concluded her Common Hour presentation by offering her thanks to the women of the Saartije Baartman Centre for welcoming her and sharing their stories and their strength.

Arnzen was followed by Levy Grant recipient Stephanie Clemente ’14, whose research focused on the trauma of Iraqi refugees living in Hartford and New Haven, CT. Her interest in the topic developed when, after spending time in Jordan to improve her Arabic, she volunteered at a Muslim school in Denmark and witnessed some of the trauma associated with families that had relocated from their home countries to Denmark.

With the help of Janet Bauer, associate professor of international studies, Clemente connected with a group of Iraqi refugees, both in Hartford and in New Haven’s budding Iraqi community. Utilizing ethnography and participant observation in her research, she conducted a series of interviews with Iraqi refugees as well as healthcare professionals.

“Don’t make me cry, people are here,” responded one woman when asked whether she still has family in Iraq.

Clemente found that there was not a strong sense of community or social support among the Iraqi women living in Hartford and New Haven as refugees. “Gossiping and backbiting” were said to be common.

Others that she interviewed talked about some of the less commonly noted effects of trauma associated with being a refugee. Although we usually think of the mental health impact, said one healthcare professional, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity are all health problems associated with such an experience.

Clemente pointed to the increased role of religion and mosques after resettlement in the United States.

“We do not have friends,” one interviewee said, “but we like to go to the mosque more because we see Muslim people. It’s a good thing.”

Other methods of coping with trauma for Iraqi refugees are keeping in touch with family in Iraq, often using Skype or Yahoo, and reading the Quran.

The “Global Vantage Point” series continues on April 1 at 12:15 p.m., with presentations from Tanaka Grant recipients Tram Luong ’14, and Gaurav Toor ’14, entitled “Vietnamese ‘Outsiders’ and Chinese ‘Insiders.’” The series is free and open to the public.