5 creative approaches to rehabilitation

No two torture survivors are the same, and across the globe rehabilitation centres explore what kind of rehabilitation method works best to help each individual survivor rebuild their life. We look at some of the most creative approaches used around the world.

1. Football Activity Group

Teamwork, exercise and fun. Three key elements of IRCT member in the UK Freedom from Torture’s Football Activity Group. The group is a joint project between the rehabilitation centre and English football club Arsenal, which uses football as a therapeutic tool.

Torture survivors take part in weekly football training sessions at the Hub – a training pitch right next to Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. The group complements individual therapy and counseling and, since it began in 2012, has grown from six to 25 members.

“The group is supportive of one another – there are partnerships, friendships, team work and togetherness. Football helps in multiple ways, says Freedom from Torture’s group therapist Selcuk Berilgen says. “It’s great exercise and the confidence in the body, for torture survivors, positively affects the mind too.”


Members of the Healing Club exploring San Diego and its surroundings. Courtesy of SURVIVORS

2. Exploring and rebuilding through the Healing Club

At SURVIVORS, San Diego, the centre has been running a Healing Club for ten years, inspired by fellow IRCT member the Program for Torture Victims of Los Angeles. Many of SURVIVOR’S clients feel isolated, do not speak English and are new to the city. That is where the Healing Club comes in.

Niki Kalmus, SURVIVORS’ Community Relations Manager explains that, “The rationale behind the Healing Club is that many of our clients come from collective societies, so it’s a great fit culturally. People can learn from one another on so many levels. Those that have been at SURVIVORS for less time can see clients who have been there longer and feel hopeful that they too can continue to heal and rebuild their lives.”

Through the Healing Club, torture victims have gone on walking tours, visited a meditation garden, gone to the beach, had tea parties and seen musicals. “We take advantage of the weather and tend to do outdoor adventures as the healing power of nature is extremely powerful. The Healing Club is rather unconventional when it comes to typical mental health options in the United States,” says Niki.

“We’ve taken therapeutic concepts from other countries and cultures and brought them here to San Diego, and we’ve seen a huge success. It’s also a bridge to other services for some clients. They start out only going to the Healing Club and then when they see our availability, accessibility, and the values we put into action around trust building, confidentiality, interpreters, etc. they gradually become more open to exploring individual therapy or psychiatry.”

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Theatre performers from VITO-CIR. Photographer: Sergio Vasselli

3. Psychosocial rehabilitation at the theatre

The use of dance and music has long been recognised as a powerful way for people from all walks of life to express themselves. Italian IRCT member, Hospitality and Care for Victims of Torture harnesses this power in its psychosocial rehabilitation theatre workshops.

Together with the Italian Council for Refugees, the centre gives refugees the chance to work with theatre professionals to develop performances around topics such as birth, violence and torture in conflict zones. The group then perform for the public every 26 June, which is the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, attracting audiences of up to 400 people.

These workshops and performances give torture survivors a platform to deal with their trauma in a more creative way. All while raising awareness among the public.

4. Involving the entire community through testimonial therapy

Supporting torture survivors in telling their stories has long been recognised as an important element of rehabilitation. In India, among other countries, rehabilitation providers have been working with Testimonial Therapy, a human rights-based psychosocial intervention, which can be used by non-professional counselors and focuses on involving the entire community.

The survivors tell their story, which is recorded and jointly edited by a counselor, a note taker and the survivors themselves. The story is then presented to the survivors in a testimony ceremony, where they are honoured in front of their community.

The ceremony in the community marks the turning point in the healing process, where the person makes the transition from the role of torture victim, to an empowered and recognised survivor of torture. If the survivors feel comfortable with it, their story will then be used as part of awareness-raising and advocacy activities.

“Before testimony [therapy] victims feel lonely and they do not tell their pain to anybody… But after testimony therapy I [put] outside my pain and share my story to encourage others. It is [a] very good process to give honour in front of [the] community and I feel that I have [got] my own dignity,” said one participant.

 5. Using the circus to reconnect with your body

“For me it was like being with my sisters again, there were women laughing, having fun, exercising. We shared lunch and talked about our countries and background.”

Jaw dropping stunts and eye-catching acts are what makes a circus great, but for torture survivor Katie, circus performance has also been a method of rehabilitation. The ‘Body Movement Reconnect’ programme is a joint initiative between Australian IRCT member Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Services (STTARS) and the group Uniting Care Wesley Bowden.

Trainers from the South Australian Circus Company work with female survivors of torture body awareness to develop social connections, improve fitness and build self-esteem to reduce the impact of chronic pain.

The group participates in a range of circus activities accompanied by therapy and group counseling for six months. After her circus training Katie felt reinvented, “It always felt like a safe space and I knew the women there understood me and I understood them. I am a strong Afghani woman, and that makes me feel proud.”



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