While writing has often been appreciated as a mode of expression and creativity, as well as reporting and everyday communication, never before had creative writing been directly associated with torture rehabilitation.
The “Write to Life” project changes this. A creative writing group of Freedom From Torture (FFT) – an IRCT member centre and the UK’s only national charity dedicated to the holistic rehabilitation of survivors of torture from around the world – the “Write to Life” project is one of the most powerful therapy programmes on offer. It has been meeting continuously every two-weeks for 12 years, has produced a formidable body of writing, and the participating torture survivors have reported that the group has aidedtheir rehabilitation – not bad for an initiative initially dismissed by some medical experts.
“The positive effects have been pronounced and clear on those who work with the group,” says Write to Life’s coordinator Sheila Hayman. “With the combination of therapy through a key worker, who initially refers the survivor to the group, it allows many people who are sidelined in society to voice their opinions, to be creative, and to couple this with targeted therapy.
“I remember one of our group members said he preferred the writing therapy to face-to-face counselling, partly because the level of control rests entirely with the individual rather than a clinician. Each person writes what they want to write and in the style they want, and this means they can deal with their past and counsel themselves on their own terms.”
The positives are certainly echoed by two members of the group, Jade Amoli-Jackson and Yamikani Tracy Ndovi. Impressed by their stories and poems, Jade and Yamikani were invited to present their work at the IRCT’s 8 April event in Copenhagen to mark 40-years since the beginning of the international anti-torture movement.
Jade, from Uganda, worked as a sports reporter following her journalism training through school. But in 2001, Jade was forced to flee her homeland due to unrest that year caused by corrupt elections and crackdowns on society by the state.
“I was initially frightened when I started seeing doctors, therapists and so on through Freedom From Torture because it was something completely different to anything I had done,” Jade explains.
“But then I joined the ‘Write to Life’ group and began talking to others who had suffered, and I realised I was not alone. I began making friends. Being an asylum seeker is tough, and you are not trained to be on your own in a new country.
“It was a struggle to come to the UK,” says Jade, “but the writing group helped me make things better. It has helped me appreciate how far I have come. It has helped me appreciate myself again. It has allowed me to say what is on my mind.”
Jade’s friend and fellow group member, Yamikani, was born in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she studied electrical engineering. Her parents, who ran a flower farm which shipped flowers to the Netherlands and Canada, were assassinated in 2001 for allegedly collaborating with white Zimbabweans, a crime under the rule of Robert Mugabe.
Yamikani was imprisoned and only released at the point of near-death. Following an escape from the country, Yamikani made it to the UK before being deported to South Africa, then to Ireland, then to the Netherlands, and then eventually back to the UK. Only after five years in the UK was Yamikani finally reunited with her daughter, who now lives with her.
“Settling somewhere was so hard, and every time I found somewhere it was not the permanent solution – it was only the beginning of the nightmare,” she explains.
“I could never set foot in simple places, even like Heathrow Airport. I could not trust anyone. When I joined the writing group, sometimes I really did not want to go, and I would not like it. But now I like the group as it motivated me. Sometimes the pain is still in the back of my mind, but I do not show it. Instead I use it in my writing and to help others.”
The group has also helped Yamikani overcome her asylum fears: “You are not allowed to do everything that others can, and you are always aware that being an asylum seeker means that your rights could be taken away from you at any point,” she explains.
“When I got the letters from the Home Office, it made me relive my experiences all the time – it made me feel unwelcome. But when I came to this group, it helped me come to terms with what I was thinking.”
The group’s writing has had success beyond those who write with the group, and collaborations with the Tate Gallery, Sinfini Music and Carmen Electra Opera, and with Tamasha and Ice & Fire theatre companies, have been well received.
“It is hard to get status, and I appreciate the difficulty of it,” Jade adds. “All the people in the group have some guilt because they have found safety. But the writing has helped me come to terms with my past. We feel like ordinary, respected humans.”