Aida S. and her 12 year old son Edis have been suggested for the participation in this year´s recreational stay by the social worker of the Centre for mental health in Gorazde. She told us that mother and child were living in poverty in an emergency accommodation and that Aida was traumatized by war experiences as well as by experienced violence during her marriage.
At the first meeting in the SEKA-House we get to know a delicate, shy young woman, who listens attentively but only speaks when addressed directly. Edis seems fragile for his age, too - friendly but reserved. The two of them obviously share a loving and very close relationship.
Aida remains silent in the beginning of the work in groups in Neum. The developing of the group rules with the exercise „What do I need, to feel safe and free in this group?” or „What should not happen in this group?” shows, that most women fear personal matters could leave the group. All of them have experienced confiding in a friend who then talked to others about it. Therefore the group establishes „absolute confidentiality” as most important rule. This rule enables Aida to talk about her fear, to open up. In the emergency accommodation, in which she lives with Edis, she experiences gossip and defamation on a daily basis, as well as disputes between neighbours. She often feels threatened and fears for her son. As a result she developed very strong mistrust against others and is very withdrawn. She is glad, that the other women in the group can understand her.
The rule „that no one has to say anything or has to take part in an exercise, if they´re not ready” is important to Aida, too.
In the following days, Aida is more able to let herself into the various exercises. She´s not the last one to speak anymore.
As we are working on the topic „resources” on day 2 and 3, using the exercise „The sources of my strength”, Aida struggles at first to name some of her own strengths and resources - the only one coming to her mind is her son. „I would do anything for him... He gives me the strength to persevere and not give up!”
With my therapeutical support (Nurka B.) however, she manages to discover quite a few more resources and abilities which help her in difficult situations.
Eventually Aida is even ready, to present her sources of strengths on the Psychodrama-stage with help by the other women. As she takes her place in the image, her posture changes: She straightens herself, breathes deeply and says: „Here I feel wonderful - calmer and stronger!”
It means a lot to Aida to be picked by the other women to represent a role in their sculptures on the stage. In one Image she portrays ‚Mother love’, in another one ‚Perseverance’ or the ‚loved sister’ of the protagonist. Through the positive perception of her, her self image slowly changes.
The topic „Violence in the family” is a dominant topic in this group, too. Aida finds herself in the experiences of the other women and in the theoretical explanations of the therapists. It encourages her to talk about it. She had got married very young, few years after the war. Her husband was considerably older - and obviously traumatized by the war. Already in the first year of their marriage he began to terrorize and abuse her - and later the children as well. When their younger son developed leukemia, the excesses got worse. Only after the younger child´s death found Aida the strength for a separation. Since the separation she and Edis live off minimal child support and cleaning jobs, which are hard to find for Aida. She doesn´t receive support from her ex-husband - he doesn´t care about his son. In the group Aida experiences the understanding and sympathy of the other women. That´s new for her: „I have never shared this to anyone before! Thank you for listening and understanding. I feel so much lighter now!”
When we talk about the topic „Trauma” on the 5th day, the theoretical explanations help Aida, to comprehend her own symptoms and reactions better - especially her massive fears and anxiety attacks. She realizes that these are consequences of years of violence in her marriage but also connected to war traumas.
Aida experienced the outbreak of war as a ten year old. Her village was first surrounded by the Serbian paramilitary, then shot at, then occupied. A part of the population was murdered, the others were expelled. Aida managed to flee with her family. In the nights they struggled through the forest, during the days they hid until they finally reached the enclave Gorazde. Her father fell one year later during the defense of Gorazde. The mother fell ill and died shortly after the war.
Aida realizes now that she got married so young (at 16), because she was longing for a family and security.
With the aid of the exercise „Map of emotions” the women establish the four basis emotions ‚Fear’, ‚Anger’, ‚Sadness’ and ‚Happiness’ : Which situations cause each feeling? Where in the body and how do I feel it? How do I handle it?
With this exercise and the other women's contributions, Aida recognizes how much her life is determined by fear and how much this fear is being passed on to her son. She realizes that she only expects worse from life and is thus not able to enjoy nice moments unrestrictedly.
The topic „Grieve” reveals, that Aida has suffered so many losses she couldn´t grieve for so far, because she had to stay functioning: The loss of her home and the secure life in her hometown; the death of her parents; the failure of her marriage and - as the „biggest open wound” - the death of her youngest child which was clearly most traumatizing for her. For the first time Aida talks about this painful topic: About the suffering of her child, her powerlessness, not being able to help him, her husband´s violence. She knows that this time was traumatizing for Edis as well.
The sympathy and experiences of the other women help Aida. For the first time she doesn´t feel alone with her pain.
Talking about the topics „Communication” and „Parenting”, Aida turns out to be a role model for the other women. She has a very democratic parenting style, but also clear values and rules. During common activities e.g. at the beach, we experience that mother and son treat each other loving and with respect. But we also observe overprotective behavior by Aida, which obviously is a result of her fears. Edis is very attached to his mother as well.
We work on the topic „Relationships” in the group by using the test „Social Atom”, which enables the women to analyze their current, emotionally important relationships concerning number and quality of relationships, closeness/ distance and wanting of change. This exercise is not easy fir Aida: Again she realizes how many close people she has lost. Furthermore she realizes, how much her „social atom” (network of relationships) has reduced. She recognizes that this is not good for her and that she wants and has to break through the isolation and build new relationships. She sees the participation in the recreational stay as an important step in this direction. The positive response of the other women encourages her.
The self-assertion training „Fight for the socks” shows us a new side of Aida: She fights like a lioness and is one of the most persistent. Through this game she realizes that she is able to fight. Afterwards she feels confident and full of energy.
At the evaluation of the group work at the end of the stay Aida says: „I will never forget Neum and our group sessions here. I have understood and learned so much about me. And I have received so much of you all. I want to thank you with all my heart. I will travel home now with a feeling of strength, happiness and confidence. And of course I want to continue coming to the SEKA-House.”
Edis is a quiet boy with a shy smile. In the beginning he stays at the side of the children group; he hardly speaks. Active and lively games seem to scare him.
He tells me (Amina Vrana) later, that he is afraid of other boys. He feels safer with girls. He perceives the boys at school or in the area around the emergency accommodation as loud and aggressive. They often provoke and attack him physically. „I don´t like to fight like the other boys. It scares me. I try and avoid them but that often doesn´t work.”
For this reason is the common establishment of the group rule on the first day of the group work very important to him. The rules and the fact that we verify together that everyone follows them give him a secure frame. He experiences this as calming and relieving.
Already in the beginning of the recreational stay it becomes clear that Edis is under a lot of pressure and full of fears.
On the second night we take the children for a walk along the waterside. There are already a lot of tourists in Neum and the promenade is quite busy. Edis asks me if he could hold my hand. I give it to him but some of the other boys notice and start making fun of him, that he was still „a baby”. He lets go of my hand. Then I say: „Well it is getting dark already. I don´t see that well in the dark, I feel safer when someone holds my hand.” The other boys stop and Edis takes my hand again - and winks at me.
While we walk along the promenade I feel that Edis´ palms are sweating - especially when the crowd grows bigger. We let the others walk ahead a bit and I ask Edis if he feels tired. He says no but tells me, that he is scared of the „weird people” who are walking around. He adds that they might be drug addicts. I can´t see anything special about the passing men, but they obviously scare Edis - remind him of some unpleasant situation.
In a simple way I explain to him how „triggers” work: When we have experienced something terrible and something reminds us of this bad situation later, we get the feeling that the same is going to happen again. This is plausible to Edis, he even comes up with a few examples for „triggers” and he recognizes, that the „weird people” are not actually that weird, but that some of them remind him by their frame of some neighbours who always cause problems because they get aggressive when drunk. I congratulate him on recognizing this trigger (he calls it in his own words: „a switch”) and that in the future - when he suddenly gets scared without an apparent reason - he will be able to think about where the fear comes from. Edis smiles contently, lets go of my hand and keeps walking independently. On no other of our walks he needed my hand again.
To work on the topic „feelings” is of special meaning in the children's group as well. During three days the children become aware of the four basis emotions (see above), as well as situations in which they feel them; they connect them to physical sensations and talk about how to deal with them.
When we talk about the feeling „Sadness/Grief” and the children name situations that make them sad (they mainly talked about the death of loved people) I notice that Edis withdraws. When I ask him whether he wanted to say something, he just shakes his head. When I ask him after the group session if he wanted to talk to me, he says: „Some other time.” Since I know from his mother that Edis lost a younger brother, I don´t want to urge him but give him time until he is ready to talk about it.
When we reach the topic „Anger” we offer in the end the exercise „Releasing anger without danger”, which children normally like a lot because they get to punch or kick cushions and yell loudly while doing it. This „allowed expression” of their anger is perceived as relieving by most children, as they often experience situations of powerless anger in everyday's life, in which they can´t release anger without negative consequences for themselves. „Releasing anger without danger” prevents that the kids take their anger out on the weaker, which would continue the chain of injustice and make them an offender themselves.
After some kids expressed their anger, it is 13 year old Salih´s turn. Beforehand he had talked about various situations in which he felt exorbitantly angry. Now he uses the opportunity to take the anger out on the cushions.
Suddenly I notice, that Edis changes: He turns pale, freezes and crouches down, eyes to the ground and hands on the ears. I carefully stop Salih´s exercise (who feels „great and relieved” afterwards). Then I ask Edis, if everything was alright. He remained silent, eyes still on the ground. I hand over the group guidance to my colleague and take Edis outside to talk to him alone. The anger Salih showed obviously triggered a traumatic memory in Edis.
I ask him what about the exercise scared him so much. It takes some time but then Edis tells me, that the manner in which Salih let out his anger scared him. He knew, that it was just an exercise and that we (the social workers) were there and that nothing bad could happen but... then he begins to cry: „I can´t do this exercise!” I take his hand, feel the sweat on his palms and calm him carefully, saying that he didn´t have to do anything he didn´t want to do. Then I say that it helped me to tell someone about what bothers me or what I'm afraid of. I ask him if he wanted to tell me what bothered him.
Edis tells me that a lot of men live in the emergency accommodation, men who drink and get aggressive, who yell and fight or insult their wives and children and that he had experienced a lot of these situations. Often he and his Mother can´t sleep because they are afraid that someone might kick in their door. That´s what the exercise reminded him of. I remind him of our talk about triggers during our walk. He bursts into tears and utters through sobs: „I have experienced and seen so many terrible things”. I give him a hug, which he accepts gladly, and tell him that we had time and that if he wanted, he could tell me about what he had experienced.
Edis tells me about his brother´s severe illness and his death from 5 years ago. „The worst thing was, that I couldn´t help him! It was so terrible when he had to die!”
I tell him that I could understand him so well, that my mother had died of an illness as well and that I knew how it felt, when you couldn´t do anything for a loved person and lost them in the end.
Edis looks at me and asks: „You don´t have a mother anymore?” I tell him that my mother died three years ago and that I still struggled with it and that I sometimes cried because of it, just like him. „But even though my mum is not alive anymore, I still carry her in my heart and in my memory. I like remembering her and all the nice things we did together and I write my feelings and memories of her in my diary.”
Edis tells me then, that his mother couldn´t talk about his brother because she would get so terribly sad and would start crying. That´s why he never talked to her, or to anyone else about it. I explain to Edis, that sometimes it hurts even more, when we lock up such experiences inside of us. „If you want, you can talk to me about it.” I suggest. „Here in Neum or when we are back in Gorazde, as well.” Edis would like that a lot.
He asks me to talk to his mum and to explain to her, why he had cried. „She can see it, but I can´t tell her!”
When I tell Aida what happened and what Edis had told me, she bursts into tears. „I am so sorry that Edis is suffering so much! I know that he misses his brother! But, there is something else. That exercise didn´t only remind Edis of the men from the accommodation, but also of his father, who treated us terribly for several years!” I explain to Aida, that it was good that Edis had started to talk about all this and that he could always come to me. But I also encourage her not to put these topics under a taboo anymore. „Talking about it is painful, but very relieving at the same time! It helps both of you to overcome your pain.”
Every day during the recreational stay Edis becomes a little more free, more confident and more communicative. His new friendship to a boy his age, Senad, plays a big part in this. Senad, too, is very quiet and withdrawn in the beginning. The two of them like each other instantly and soon become inseparable, without withdrawing from the group. On the contrary: Together they obviously feel safe enough to become livelier and more active in the group. Edis is happy that he has found his „best friend” in Senad.
Mother and son have changed a lot in these 12 days: They are more open, more communicative and happier, their confidence has grown and they have built new, important relationships. They have started to understand themselves better and have become aware of the topics they want to work on - with our help, which they happily accept.
Nurka Babovic, Amina Vrana, Gabriele Müller
* Names changed