Academic journal article The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work

Making Now Precious: Working with Survivors of Torture and Asylum Seekers

Academic journal article The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work

Making Now Precious: Working with Survivors of Torture and Asylum Seekers

Article excerpt

For the last few years I have been working with the Christmas Island Torture and Trauma service situated within the Indian Ocean Territories Health Service. Christmas Island lies in the Indian Ocean around 300km south of Indonesia and is considered a part of Western Australia. Asylum seekers arriving in Australian waters by boat are brought initially to Christmas Island where they enter Australia's detention network1. My role within the service is to meet with newly arrived asylum seekers who have been identified as having experienced torture and trauma and to provide therapeutic counselling, advocacy support and, when appropriate, to refer them on to the Forum of Australian Services for Survivors of Torture and Trauma Network.

The people with whom I meet come from a range of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds and I have the opportunity to work alongside face-to-face interpreters for all sessions and conversations. I have had the opportunity to meet with men, women, children and families - some journeying alone, others with one another. The work is subject to daily change. Sometimes I have had the opportunity to meet with people over a period of six months, sometimes three months, sometimes a single session. It is common for referrals to our service to be considered 'patients with complex multiple trauma resulting from torture presenting with significant symptomology'. Referring notes often include the following descriptions:

* Difficulty sleeping including nightmares

* Grief and loss

* Feelings of guilt, shame and self-blame

* Disconnection with self and identity

* Intrusive memories, images, flashbacks

* Difficulty being in close confinement with others, sensitive to noise and crowds

* Symptoms of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

There are many excellent texts exploring and describing working with the effects of torture and trauma, engaging with asylum seekers and refugees (please see further reading). In this particular article, I explore how I am seeking to use narrative practices in this very specific context and the unique considerations it provokes. I attempt to place the microscope over the very initial period in which people arrive on Christmas Island and the conversations that I engage with people before they are moved on into the wider detention network.

In my initial months of working on Christmas Island, I was acutely aware of the overwhelming dominance of particular discourses that shape Australia's approach to immigration and detention. As one of the only services on Christmas Island for asylum seekers that is situated outside the detention system, at times we can feel like a tiny island at risk of being overwhelmed by the turbulent unpredictable ocean. As I question, 'How do I sustain this work and facilitate space for rich alternative stories to emerge?', the people I meet with are grappling with, 'How can I continue to sustain a sense of self and personal agency within this new chapter of Australian detention?', alongside, 'How do I respond to the multiple effects of torture, trauma, displacement and loss from day-to-day?' Over the last few years, I have embarked on a journey with asylum seekers to seek answers to these questions. While still not close to answers, the following principles of practice have emerged along the way:

* Embodying the opposite of torture

* Less pain, more gain

* Establishing an alternative territory, a welcoming space

* Invitational inquiry and co-evaluation

* Double-listening - what do they hold precious?

* Scaffolding for three - working alongside interpreters

EMbOdying THe OPPOsiTe Of TORTURe, THe OPPOsiTe Of THe deTenTiOn sysTem

People often share with me that what they find useful in our therapeutic conversations is the opportunity to experience comfort, relaxation, safety and acceptance in the company of someone who is fully present to them. …

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