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With increasing global unrest, we are faced with troubling images of human suffering and despair on numerous media and news outlets. Images from war-torn countries, especially refugees in search of safety and survival, conjure familiar feelings of despair in refugee communities across the United States (U.S.). I am a refugee and am reminded every day of how lucky my family and I were to migrate to the U.S. to flee the devastating war in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1990’s.

A traumatic experience has devastating psychological and physical consequences. Surviving trauma invites experiences of emptiness, indifference, and questions about the purpose and meaning of life. Survivors of trauma may find relief from existential pain by being of service to others. As such, I am not surprised with my decision to pursue a career in clinical psychology. There is value in sharing a deep understanding of suffering and offering an empathic environment in which the individuals I serve can feel safe; a feeling that is often a luxury to survivors of trauma.

I am currently a fifth-year clinical psychology student at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and practice from a psychodynamic and humanistic-existential understanding of trauma.  Although I value the medical-model approach, my clinical and personal experience of trauma do not neatly fit the check-list definitions of trauma, which reduce traumatic experiences to medicalized language that takes away from the complexity of human suffering.

I am finishing a clinical training experience at Heartland Alliance Marjorie Kovler Center (Kovler Center) in Chicago, Illinois—a treatment center for survivors of torture in. The interdisciplinary team of professionals provides comprehensive services to asylum seekers who experienced politically-sanctioned torture and persecution. I was always drawn to practicum sites that emphasized diversity and trauma, perhaps because I found a familiar comfort in working with clinically and culturally diverse individuals and families. Cultural identity and issues are often left unsaid by both clients and therapists for many reasons; for example, an unawareness or implicit assumption that there is a cultural understanding. However, culture should be addressed explicitly because it impacts the development and well-being of individuals, and I found that discussing it openly and honestly helps build rapport and encourages me to remain culturally sensitive.

One of my values as a therapist-in-training is to remain open to learning from my clients. I do so by learning about and integrating cultural differences into treatment in a sensitive and respectful manner. The intersection between culture and trauma was especially tangible in my work at Kovler Center. As a student therapist, I approached each therapy client with an open mind and a desire to learn. Most of my clients came from various African countries with different religious and spiritual beliefs; spoke different languages; and, carried heavy loads of trauma on their minds, bodies, and souls.

My first encounter with clients who survived torture was humbling. I recall experiencing an incredible wave of gratitude for the opportunity to share the therapeutic space with such resilient individuals. Nothing I learned in the classroom could have ever prepared me for such encounters. During the initial weeks, therapy sessions were focused on building rapport. I also spent many hours researching the countries that my clients were from. I took notes of significant historical events and familiarized myself with the religious and cultural beliefs and practices. Of course, I could not learn everything from Wikipedia articles and amateur YouTube documentaries about these countries; however, the effort demonstrated my interest and dedication to understanding my client’s cultural context. Many clients expressed gratitude and enthusiastically shared their own cultural narratives. Just as I was curious about my client’s cultural histories, many clients wondered about my cultural background. In most settings, self-disclosure is treated delicately, and students are generally advised to consider the client’s motives for wanting to know more about us. However, in a setting such as Kovler Center, self-disclosure is generally part of the therapeutic process.

The therapeutic relationships were often a dance between nostalgia and hope, hope for the future in America as clients integrate their cultural histories into their new “American” identities. There were many days when I felt powerless and incompetent to help my clients heal the wounds of torture and trauma. I learned that acknowledging this powerlessness and sharing the space with my clients was sufficient. My role was not to “take away” pain; rather, my role was to provide a safe and trusting environment for clients. In this therapeutic space, we learned that despite our cultural differences and the unbearable trauma my clients carried on their soul, we share our humanness through unconditional love and empathy. As I completed my training at Kovler Center, my clients walked away with restored dignity; and, I walked away a better person because of our therapeutic relationships. Experiences such as this cannot be taught in any course.  

About the Author

Natasa Brozovic, MA, is currently a fifth year Clinical Psychology student at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Natasa is currently a psychotherapy extern at the Marjorie Kovler Center where she provides psychotherapy to immigrant individuals recovering from the complex consequences of politically-sanctioned torture. Her academic and professional interests include psychological healing from trauma, torture, and systemic oppression. Natasa’s personal values and attitudes embrace a commitment to social justice and international human rights. Her dissertation examines transgenerational transmission of nationalism and collective trauma in her native country Bosnia and Herzegovina.