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Supporting Venezuelan refugees through restorative service

Stories | 01.05.23

A woman forced to leave her elderly mother behind. Parents choosing which child to bring with them. Couples who haven’t slept in the same bed in months. And children, whose education has been disrupted, taking lessons in makeshift classrooms.

For Venezuelan refugees and migrants living in shelters in Lima, Peru, life as a family can be rife with struggles and challenges.

“We see their stories in the news, but it’s another to see in person the needs of refugees and migrant families who have experienced significant immigration trauma and the strain of family separation,” said Marsha Vaughn, Ph.D. professor in the Couple and Family Therapy Department.

Finding culturally sensitive ways to address those needs while learning about mental health services in a different country were among the reasons she brought a group of four CFT students and one alumnus, along with one Psy.D. student and adjunct faculty member, to a one-week trip to Lima in August.

Partnering with the nongovernmental organization Paz Y Esperanza, the visiting group were there to help run a family retreat where they offered a listening ear to the migrants, lead therapeutic activities, provide a place for fun and rest, and help family members reconnect and bond.

“We had some things in mind regarding what we wanted to do,” Dr. Vaughn said. “But our ultimate goal was simple: to serve.”

Photo of Adler students and staff visiting Lima, Peru

Adler University students and faculty pose for a group photo during a one-week trip to Lima, Peru. The team provided mental health services to Venezuelan migrants and refugees.

Peace and hope

Dr. Vaughn had worked with Paz y Esperanza prior to coming to Adler.

“Peace and hope” in English, the NGO, which has a presence in various South American countries, began in the 1980s to address environmental justice and protect indigenous land rights.

“They are a fantastic organization that responds to the needs of the communities at a local level,” Dr. Vaughn said. “Today, an emerging need in Lima has been to help with the Venezuelan refugee crisis.”

According to the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees, about 7.1 million people from Venezuela have left in recent years to escape violence, insecurity, threats, and lack of food, medicine and essential services.

“About 1.3 million have come to Peru, and about 80% of them settle in Lima,” Dr. Vaughn said.

CFT faculty had organized a yearly study abroad trip for students that integrates education and volunteer work. In 2019, students and faculty went to Panama to work with nonprofit medical care providers in adding a mental health component to their services. In 2020, however, a trip to Nairobi, Kenya, was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When Dr. Vaughn learned that the program would be back in 2022, she immediately thought of Paz y Esperanza.

“They’re intentional in matching their needs with what groups can offer,” said Dr. Vaughn, adding that the nonprofit has a solid infrastructure in hosting teams from other countries to help. “There was still so much to do in Peru, and our students had a lot to offer.”

Task at hand

For Evelyn Pechous, a student in the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D) in Couple and Family Therapy program, going to Lima with the group from Adler was personal.

Photo of Venezuelan families practicing yoga.

Away from the bustle of Lima, the retreat space offered a sanctuary. Families enjoyed nature and the outdoors, participate in dancing lessons and volleyball games, and enjoy meals together. Adler students also led art projects, yoga and mindfulness exercises, and conducted play therapy techniques.

“The main reason I wanted to be a therapist was because there weren’t enough Latinx or Spanish-speaking therapists,” she said. “I knew I could help provide therapeutic support for these refugees who are Spanish speakers.”

Pechous’ dissertation focuses on using narrative therapy with Latin communities who have experienced immigration trauma. She is also a graduate of Adler’s CFT master’s degree program and the University’s Certificate in Sex Therapy program.

It was at 1:30 a.m. on Aug. 3 when, due to a flight delay, she landed in Lima. But despite the long travel day, she was focused on the task at hand.

“I was pretty drained, but I was excited to get to work,” said Pechous, adding that she was also a little nervous. “I just wanted to make sure everyone from the trip would approach our work in a culturally sensitive or informed lens.”

After breakfast, the group visited their first shelter. In all, the group visited five shelters during the first two days, encouraging families to come and spend three days at retreat space just outside of Lima.

“We were trying to get our footing at first,” Pechous said. “But once we were able to hear their stories, we were able to adjust and figure out what we could provide.”

Most of the people they met were professionals — nurses, teachers, business owners, etc. — who’ve lost access to their licenses and degrees.

“These are people who were now trying to adjust and build a new life in Lima,” Pechous said.

Because of the way shelter life worked, the students quickly learned that many of the couples have not been able to share a bedroom in months. The kids were learning in churches that have been converted to school classrooms. The Adler group met children as young as a year old and fathers who left their entire family to be able to work and send money back home.

“The majority of the work we did at the retreat was to provide a space for parents to reconnect as couples, for children to have fun doing activities, and for families to have restorative experience,” Pechous said.

Making authentic connections

Away from the bustle of Lima, the retreat space offered a sanctuary. Families could enjoy nature and the outdoors, participate in dancing lessons and volleyball games, and enjoy meals together. Adler students also led art projects, yoga and mindfulness exercises, and conducted play therapy techniques.

“The students went to Lima and played some games,” Dr. Vaughn said. “Yes, that sounds ridiculous, but I believe in the therapeutic nature of laughter and play.”

Photo of children watching Encanto

Children and their families enjoy an evening watching the movie “Encanto.”

Although two students knew Spanish and Paz y Esperanza had an interpreter, the language barrier remained a major challenge. It was CFT graduate student and Ph.D. student Kayla Harris’ biggest concern prior to the trip.

“I wanted to be respectful and to connect in an authentic way, especially with me being a white woman who didn’t know Spanish,” Harris said.

But once the work began, it was clear there are things that transcend language differences.

Harris was on the bus with some kids when she decided to use the Google translate feature on her phone to communicate.

“I just asked them if they were excited about the weekend retreat,” Harris said. “And the kids’ eyes just lit up as the phone translated my words. It wasn’t perfect but it was enough to have a shared exchange.”

One of the mothers was sitting behind Harris and could hear everything. Suddenly, the mother began singing and the kids joined in. Through Google translate, the woman shared with Harris how the song made her think of her mother who was too elderly to leave Venezuela and travel through Colombia and Peru.

“During her journey to Lima, she had learned that her mother had passed away,” Harris said. “The song made her feel connected to her mother.”

The song was “Al Final,” a ballad by Dominican gospel singer Lilly Goodman.

Later that evening, Harris thanked the woman for sharing the song. The two continued their conversation, with Harris sharing her experience of losing a parent, while the woman shared photos of her mother.

“We were both crying at the end,” she said. “Here I was worrying about language differences, but while it’s important, you can connect with people when you open your heart and simply listen.”

‘On our doorstep’

Those who returned from Lima are already looking to continue their work with Venezuelan families — this time in Chicago.

It was about three weeks after the students returned when the news of Republican governors busing and flying migrants — most of whom from Venezuela — to major cities began making headlines.

“Things we witnessed in Peru have shown up on our doorstep,” Dr. Vaughn said. “Now, we students can look at things as complex as immigration, political strife, the impact on families, and the strains on mental health with context. We’re able to see the differences but also what challenges remain the same.”

For Pechous, it solidified for her the importance of cultural awareness and attunement when working with clients in a particular community or identity. She’s also looking for ways to connect and collaborate with different organizations that are working with Venezuelan migrants who recently arrived in Chicago.

“To see students get out of their comfort zone and dig deeper to connect with people who have experienced trauma, I had hoped they would take this one-week experience and expand their commitment on helping people affected by social and political issues,” Dr. Vaughn said. “And so far, they are flourishing.”

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