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Crossing Cultural Divides to Help Women After Violence

Stories | 04.24.19

Jennifer van Wyck, M.A. ’10, works in areas of the Middle East formerly controlled by the Islamic State (IS) group to help women who have experienced violence and their communities to heal.

After receiving her Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology in Vancouver, van Wyck went on to help people in crisis as a global aid worker. She received a Meritorious Service Medal (Civil Division) from the Canadian government for her work assisting Ebola survivors and orphans in Sierra Leone. She later managed the International Medical Corps’ gender-based violence programs in Haiti and is now building and running its programs in the Middle East.

Van Wyck and her team work with the many women in the region who are survivors of child marriage, abuse, and rape that occurred during or after IS control.

“Our mantra for this program is that we just want women to help women understand that they are valuable and that they matter,” van Wyck said. “If we can do that then it is a success.”

The program has been in service for a year in one area—and has served almost 4,000 women. It is currently expanding to two more locations in the Middle East.

To get a program started, van Wyck first meets and creates relationships with community and religious leaders. She talks to them about the issues that her team can help address. Van Wyck hires native-language-speaking case managers in the community and trains them in how to perform basic interpersonal therapy and psychological first aid so they can provide one-on-one and group therapy. They also connect women to healthcare, legal, and other services in the area.

Van Wyck trains community mobilizers who go house-to-house and tell women about the case managers and the services they offer. “When we first started going door to door, there were women crying because no one had ever asked them how they were doing,” she said.

“What we are really trying to do is empower them on an interpersonal level, so even in the case management, we help them realize that they can find their own solutions.” Her team’s role is to guide the women to help them understand their feelings and to find their inner strength and courage.

Her team’s role is to guide the women to help them understand their feelings and to find their inner strength and courage.

This approach has been successful. “People have been quite open and have been working with our case managers at astronomically high numbers,” van Wyck said. From the women, they have heard that “it was life-changing to know that someone cares about them. Just the process of realizing that someone cares is huge and that they can connect to each other is huge because there is so much isolation for women in the area,” van Wyck said.

Cultural differences can present a challenge, she said. “One thing I really struggled with—because it is so important to me to respect communities and their culture—is that there are so many different ways of doing something, and just because I don’t agree with it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong. For me, the line of where I need to intervene is human rights. Women being raped. Women being beaten. Women being killed.”

Van Wyck said that when she started this work, many people wondered why she was getting involved with something that wasn’t “her war.”

“What I really like about Adler University is that it’s not just about us. We have to take care of others—and the well-being of others will ultimately affect our own well-being.”

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