If Peace Had Room to Exist

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If peace had the space to exist, what would it look like?

I work with a nonprofit organization in Portland, Maine which serves the local refugee, asylee and pending asylum seeker population from Africa and the Middle East. Our team of Community Health Workers (CHWs) serve as advocates and leaders for community members who share their cultural background to increase awareness and understanding of benefits and programs that they may qualify for, helping to provide equal access to services such as health care. We began this journey over a year ago, and since then, we have worked hard to earn trust in the community.

Uprooted and displaced, sometimes remaining one unit as a family, other times separated; this is the story of our clients upon their arrival to Portland. Though considerably safer and protected once on American soil, new struggles and challenges are just beginning. Alongside the daily burden of acculturation exists a persistent ache from what was left behind, as well as what many of our clients continue to carry with them – untreated and unsupported mental illness triggered by the traumatic stress of witnessing loved ones killed in the crossfire of political and tribal conflict.

We recently began a pilot peer support/interpersonal process group spearheaded by our Community Health Workers to fill two needs – the need for peer support and the opportunity to learn the skill of interpersonal process. With these groups, we hope to build community and support in an accepting environment.

Now, every Tuesday in the office, refugees and asylees from Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Ivory Coast, Rwanda, and Gabon share common memories of home, civil war, fleeing to safety, and the present challenge of resettling. In some cases individuals have had to accomplish this on their own, leaving family behind or having been forced to separate. Guided and mediated by a trained group facilitator in French and English, no issue is off the table, every group member’s story is heard. It is a place where people listen and where stories live – safely, peacefully.

In the beginning, participants expressed discomfort in a variety of ways. For some, being asked to share a room and conversation with people they once thought of as enemies seemed insurmountable.

Eight weeks in, the group was asked to reflect on their own interpersonal process.

One member shared his surprise in his own process of acceptance with the group as a whole; that, although the group was introduced to him as a “peer support group” it has proven to be more of a “group of reconciliation”. Initially, he believed strongly in the negative associations of his neighbors prior to fleeing his country in conflict and he doubted he could let go of these assumptions in a group like this in Portland, Maine. He went on to say that now, more than ever, the once-strangers seated around the table he now acknowledges as his “brothers.”

We no longer have the funding for a trained facilitator to continue to support this group. Still, each of the original twenty-five members continue meet in our office each Tuesday. And, as long as we can pay the rent, we’ll do whatever we can to help this conversation continue.

Because, for me, this is what peace looks like.

Contributed by Sarah Lewis

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