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by Elizabeth Holden Wagenheim, Language Studies

An estimated, 400,000 people in the U.S. are survivors of torture.  This figure is all the more startling and pertinent when considering the number of refugees who are residents of Prince Georgeís County.  During a presentation by Karen Hanscom, a psychotherapist and the director of Advocates for Survivors of Trauma and Torture, 360 English as a Second Language teachers from throughout the state learned methods of recognizing and working with students who may have such a history.  The presentation was part of Maryland TESOLís conference held on November 3, organized this year by Language Studies faculty member Goedele Gulikers.

Manifestations in the Classroom
Survivors have developed strategies for dealing with torture or trauma that helped them to endure the violent acts.  No longer necessary, those very strategies can interfere with learning.  Students who have been through ordeals may experience persistent reliving of the traumatic experience, leading to interrupted sleep and fatigue in the classroom.  In addition, they may also re-experience the physical reactions such as heart palpitations.  Survivors may decide to avoid situations that trigger re-experiencing, which can interfere with their ability to participate freely.  For instance, a person who experienced torture at night may avoid going out at night, limiting their participation in evening classes or events.  Persistent arousal is another emotional scar.  Students experiencing this symptom are on constant alert. It may cause them to be hyper-vigilant, distrustful of personal relationships, or unable to sleep.  Perhaps the most profound side effect is dissociation. Like all the symptoms, dissociation is a state that protects us during extreme situations. It allows a person to mentally withdraw from his body.  When it continues beyond the original incident of torture, it may affect studentís ability to concentrate in the classroom, causing the student to pause mid-sentence or adopt a vacant, trance-like stare.

Classroom as Therapeutic Environment
Dr. Hanscom believes that oneís essential sense of well-being is learned during infancy with the realization that one is safe, cared for, and powerful over the environment.  Torture damages or destroys all three or these aspects of well-being.  The teacher-student relationship has the ability to help recreate that essential sense of security if the teacher can build trust.  For some survivors, the teacher-student relationship can provide a safe place to re-tell their story.  The teacher has only to listen and to receive the stories. Listening itself can be an antidote.  However, the student should have the power to decide if and how much to reveal.  For other survivors, it is not necessary to verbalize their experience.  The sense of trust can be enough to promote healing.

The Advocates of Survivors of Torture and Trauma is a nonprofit organization located in Baltimore. Its mission is to provide training and support to front-line professionals working with survivors as well as therapeutic counseling to survivors.  It also provides information for advocacy and offers its expertise through consulting.

Maryland Department of Human Resources operates the Maryland Office for New Americans (MONA) which provides support services to refugees to ease their transition into American society and serves as a resource to the Governor and General Assembly on refugee and immigrant policy.  MONA also publishes a directory of organizations serving the immigrant communities in Maryland.


The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 17, No. 2

Fall 2001