backstory . . .
(by Dr. Ruebsamen) In the fall of 2014, I met a recent psychology graduate the day before he began working in a refugee camp that was part of the vast network of Jordanian camps for Syrian children sprawling across the desert far outside Amman. When asked if he would like support or help with anything, he replied, "I honestly don't know yet - first I have to figure out how to drive three hours each way into the desert just to get there and back." I stayed with him. That was the beginning of a strong relationship - and a template for what would become critical relationships with other young humanitarians and their families and an immense amount of learning, growth for all of us.
By February 2015, I found myself encouraging and informally mentoring young aid workers and humanitarians from a number of disciplines, mental health workers, their friends from various global nonprofits. They are truly amazing leaders who are working with children, young people, and families - in agencies aiming to prevent gender-based violence or to raise awareness for the needs of children and mothers at the borders of receiving countries -- and I found myself receiving requests such as money to obtain blankets, or simple coverings for protection from the searing rays of the sun for over fifty nursing mothers who flee daily from DRC into Burundi. There have been pressing demands for supplies from some who are establishing residential schools for street children, from individuals who shelter and educate children and youth from the immense, sprawling slums near Nairobi, Kenya, where 65% of the population are HIV positive. These young adult leaders are extraordinarily committed to peace, non-violence, education and the sustainability of humanitarian efforts within their countries; they are working far beyond their job requirements for the wellbeing of their country's children and the future of health and mental health globally.
They are, of course, multilingual, caring, and generous - they share their religious traditions, parenting practices, patiently educate the rest of us about their customs, music, their prayers. They love their children and families and those of the people they work with. They've been enthusiastically supportive of our plan to include an additional mental health component to the work they are already involved in.
Aid workers are familiar with uncomfortable circumstances and sacrifice - the kind of circumstances which command their daily attention are not trivial.
It is impossible to ignore how deeply, passionately, loyal they are to their countries of origin - in many ways, unlike anything I have experienced in the US.
They are comfortable requesting clarification or assistance.
They certainly like and trust President Obama, refer to him as a friend. (Some think I know him personally and am in a position to ask him for favors . . . which is another story!). They're exceptionally caring to each other and to those Country Directors from countries quite different from their own. They represent vastly differing traditions, various religions or none at all - secular - hey are gracious and respectful, keeping track of each other's concerns.
Building Community and a non-profit . . .
By researching, informally communicating with each other and being open to learning, developing understandings of each others' countries conditions, developing trust and communication in real time with field workers, team members, board members, partners, and allies for several years, we've developed a sense of connectedness and a collaborative working model. Need based treatment derives from the work of Dr. Jess Ghannam, Dept. of Global Health Sciences, UCSF, SF, CA, which he has used with children and adolescents trapped in the perpetual armed conflict of Gaza.
Always Be Listening obtained nonprofit status in the US and is building a wonderful, gifted Board of Directors and advisors.
We have a compelling interest in understanding the ways children cope with adversity - their cognitive awareness and appraisal, to begin with, and how they come to make sense of their early experiences within families. I am particularly interested in how the world's diverse children comprehend their experience of war and forcible migration, the earnestness and clarity with which they communicate their deepest thoughts and feelings - in images, words, stories.
As trauma psychologists, we have clinical expertise and experience regarding the nature, effects, assessment and treatment of exposure to violence on children in a number of compromised contexts, the lifelong effects of childhood adversity on the young, developing brain, the experiences of chronic terror and war in the lives of children of differing developmental stages, and the nature and importance of a pedagogy of peace for children.
These threads of expertise and experience are evident in our approaches to the work regardless of what the position is in crisis, humanitarian work with youth, families and caregivers -- most of whose lives have been characterized by unpredictable, often severe, chronic, and catastrophic trauma, involving multiple loss, ambiguous, complicated or disenfranchised bereavement, loss of primary parent or caregiver --intertwined with developmental strengths and constraints and changing, unstable, undependable, contexts of living.
Life in high threat high conflict war zones adds to these risk factors many more levels of primary and secondary violence exposure, amibiguity, identity diffusion and loss of future orientation, statelessness, mixed psychiatric states including helpless and hopeless depression, dissociation, rage, damages and sometimes may demolish the trust essential to sustain childhood attachment.
War brings overwhelming preoccupation with survival concerns and propels post traumatic anxious somatization, lack of sleeping and eating; depression and sadness.
- a Pedagogy of Peace . . .
Stress, Coping, and the road to Hope
As a college freshman, I recall studiying, independently, details of the artistic and literary lives fastidiously maintained by Jewish adults for children in resettlement camps in WWII (preserved in the story of Terezin Concentration Camp, I Never Saw Another Butterfly).
Human rights became very personal to us as students in the sixties with our impassioned dreams, our music, but then the horror of leader after leader assassinated before our eyes - Martin, John, Bobby . . . and our classmates disappearing overnight from their seats in as a result of the Draft, the war in Vietnam.
Decades later, there was Jimmy Carter - after his Presidency - emerging with a steadiness and purity of character that never wavered, traversing the earth, as he describes it, "building latrines" , negotiating with dictators, waging peace year after year, accomplishing so much more for human rights and humanitarian causes than any President ever had - and certainly more influential than he himself had ever been short of Camp David.
I was privileged to meet former hostage, Professor of Health Care at Tehran University, David Jacobsen, (who quipped, when we picked him up at his hotel for the speaking engagement, ( "I'm actually more used to riding in the trunk . . .") . . . spoke of how he and his fellow prisoners survived in captivity - talked about the compassion and forgiveness he developed for his young guards, "mere boys, really". He spoke some of how he endured more than he believed possible along with fellow hostages Catholic priest, Father Jenko, Presbyterian missionary Benjamin Weir, William Buckley . . . surviving partly by drawing deeply upon their commonality, creating what they called "a walking university", each taking a turn lecturing on a subject they were expert in and leading the others in an imaginary "walking tour" of that area in order to keep their minds sharp, exercising by running in place while chained in order to remain alert and strong, participating in "interfaith services" in their cell which they cryptically named the "the Church of the Locked Door" - and, primarily, he spoke of how deeply they grew to understand and love each other during their ordeal of suffering.
In time, I came upon and studied the beautiful work of holocaust survivor Dr..Grace Feuerverger on war and a pedagogy of peace - who used fairy tales as a therapeutic teaching tool (spiritual guide) to teach principles of peaceable living to war-traumatized refugee children.
I observed in amazement and delight as my daughter spent twelve years deeply loving her work and raising her infants through their early childhood in a Jewish Community Center . . . enchanted by the ancient stories, the teachings, the rituals, (the food!!) . . . a son spent postgrad years studying Torah and Holocaust, studying, as well, with beloved Muslim scholars, reconciling wounds of history with Mormon bishops, working with his Native American "brothers", his Sikh friends, "brothers" in Israel, Palestine/West Bank, Turkey, bringing all of them into his churches, exiles from Myanmar - and sharing in their holy places, holy days, their histories, synagogues, mosques. and temples . . . sharing High Holy Days . . .standing in public solidarity with families of victims, families of mass shooters, with rabbis of desecrated synagogues, with his imam friends when mosques are threatened, committed to local, national and global interfaith activities. Because, 'Ya gotta know 'em to love 'em, Mom."
Over more than several decades, my worldview has been influenced by accurate, transformative interreligous dialogue and the reconciliation activities.. I've watched kind, courageous, faith and simple kindness lived beyond traditional religious and political boundaries -- application of inclusivity in the US and globally in high risk regions. -- persistent relational enduring friendships built, discourse, teaching, and reconciliation conducted. This, by my son and his family. My daughter and her family, at the same time, weave cohort after cohort of diverse children and young people into a larger family atmosphere who predictably care for them as they grow, give them structure and training, reaching out to local and wider US disaster areas, rebuilding and restoring homes in post disaster regions, in some of the poorest regions of their state, and on Cherokee Nation land -- potentially in Cuba. These grown children are have become my beloved and most profound mentors.
As well, I've stumbled upon an intentional community of contemplatives people who "live into their prayers", a group with whom to worship (I actually did "stumble upon" . . . their labyrinth . . . which is how I found them), This is a place where there is always space and a place for awareness, grounding, clarity, insightful support, and community.
That has cleared the way for deep listening to the way care and compassion might be enacted through Always Be Listening. Focus and awareness allows much to fall aside, allows for a singular energy, support and community enhances wellbeing, helps titrate the pace of creative ideas, and provides a safe, trusted place for revising and refocusing.
Buddhist leaders whose influence has been immense in the last few years includes former Chinatown gang leader Bill Lee, survivor of an epic pre- and postnatal (and near-lethal) family environment, crushing community rejection and corruption and gang violence, post-migration stress of tragic proportions, unimaginable denigration, alienation, complex traumatic stress -- who today -- brings present moment acceptance and potent mindfulness to at risk, high risk youth. And Bill is a dear and watchful, kind, friend.
Warm thanks to Dr. Sam Himelstein, extraordinarily committed to and effective with incarcerated and other vulnerable youth and to newest old Buddhist friend on the journey, Mark Osaki, who doesn't know how not be wise and generous with his support. Deep bows to each of you.
The Handing Down
I never think of building organizations that are fantastical
But, I often think about how fortunate I am to have found a unique way to work, among many that others have found, contributing to therapeutic support of incredibly vulnerable and utterly compelling children in the wide, frightening, world of persistent conflict and post-conflict settings.
And how amazing, the things we are learning about bringing the need-based and relationship-based application of solid, clinical psychological treatment principles - and basic, humane, warmly spiritual concepts such as kindness and compassion - to the critical existential questions raised by the global nightmare of childhood victimization, -- a world of children as collateral damage, children expendable, discarded, deemed absolutely irrelevant and nonessential to the needs of states in conflict.
So, deepest bows ever to those of you who are child-whisperers in your own right - well on your own paths of insight, generosity, and care. You give me a reason to grow older joyfully and be comfortable thinking about "handing down" this project even as I work to initiate it -- you are already child-whispering a better world than I ever could dream of, raising your own children with the grounding and skills to be strong and caring. Radically inclusive.
Backstory, then, is a kind of a circling, meandering, dynamic tale with a bit of how some core ideas formed in me, and some about those whose lives intersected with mine in ways that were, and remain, meaningful. Even as Always is developing and changing, inclusive care and humanitarian work already moves on in others. And while Always reflects their ideas and affects my life, it probably also influences others in ways they may not yet imagine . . . "that's the glory of, that's the story of love".
It is always located within a much larger, redemptive Story, which has many names.
Notes & Addendum:
The Reality of Shifting Risks and Instabilities:
BORDERS; unstable Geopolitical Regions
This project was formed from the pioneering global clinical research of Dr. Jess Ghannam, Global Health Sciences, UCSF, who has worked a very long time and extremely intensely with children and youth of the seemingly unending, indescribably horrific civilian-involved conflict affecting Palestinians, particularly children. With his permission, ALWAYS has adopted and translated his projects' clinician-administered measures, and is translating and adapting his work to diverse settings in a number of countries rather than focusing on one. Select humanitarian workers, educators, psychologists already working in those countries are being trained in the project's conceptual base as well as its methods and administration; assessment, and evaluation.
Our settings share similarities in that most are relatively geopolitically remote and unstable, most are at or near country borders, with all the shifting risks and dangers inherent in those areas. They are the most critical areas for the welfare of refugees - the places where they are finally most vulnerable, most susceptible to sudden death as they attempt to cross. (Most children forcibly migrating die wandering within the borders of their own countries. Of those that are fortunate enough to leave the country . . . being forcibly migrated and stateless is the next most dangerous period of time.) The border areas are a region where children and youth are found to be abandoned, orphaned, unschooled, poor, often desperate and helpless for years, thus most susceptible to recruitment by forces such as Taliban, as at the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan; most vulnerable to trafficking.
Risk and Early Setbacks/Tragedies at Borders:
Conflict Zones, Post Conflict Zones,and Natural Disasters
During the formation of the Project, five sobering events occurred in the first six months in border regions where our leaders had been traveling or working. These tragedies resulted in significant loss of life in areas we had highlighted because of their proximity to border regions populated with impoverished, orphaned adolescents highly susceptible to Taliban or other recruitment (near Islamabad and Peshawar - the Peshawar school massacre) or in the countryside (in the Kenya countryside where buses were repeatedly attacked by Al Shabaab) and in northern Kenyan/southern Somalia border where there are many many peaceful farming people along the border ( - the Garissa University attack).
On May 13, we were attempting to locate one of our Country Directors in Burundi, with his wife, young child, and newborn. He had alerted us to the possibility of a coup, which indeed did transpire - we were unable to re-establish contact with him until weeks had passed; he had been injured.
On June 24, Karachi Pakistan - where we have Country Consultant, Director of NPC Pakistan, a horrendous heat wave struck, killing somewhere near 8 - 12,000 individuals - with no relief services commensurate with the numbers of victims.
ALWAYS has an identified presence and at least one Country Director in Kenya, Burundi, Uganda and South Sudan; Somalia, Jordanian camps for Syrian Children, Ireland - camps for refugees through Trinity College Dublin; Pakistan through consultation; Ukraine, consultation, USA, Southern/Cuba/Caribbean, potentially.