American Counseling Association – Counseling Today Story

It’s a Small World
(Counseling Today) 12.17.10

ACA members talk about the importance of counselors thinking and acting globally

…Crossing borders

Fred Bemak has worked as a counselor in 36 countries — emphasis on worked, not simply traveled to or through.

With a passion for international counseling, Bemak, professor and director of the Diversity Research in Action Center at George Mason University, founded Counselors Without Borders in 2005. The catalyst for the organization’s creation, Bemak says, was witnessing the great underserved need for culturally responsive counseling in the Gulf Coast region in the months after Hurricane Katrina.

When an earthquake devastated Haiti this past year, Bemak immediately recognized that same need. With an invitation from Partners of the Americas and funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, Bemak mobilized a team of counselors who traveled to the country for two and a half weeks in April. The one thing Bemak says counselors must have before working internationally is an invitation. “You should never go and create more chaos,” he says. “You have to have the infrastructure first.”

Once Bemak’s Counselors Without Borders team, composed of himself and two others, arrived in Port-au-Prince, they began intensive training at a school that remained partially standing. They worked with school administrators and staff members from throughout Port-au-Prince, as well as students and even parents. “One hundred percent of the people in Haiti were affected by the earthquake,” Bemak says. “We heard stories hundreds of times about children who watched a parent, sibling or friend die. People just don’t know how to deal with that kind of trauma.”

Bemak helped school staff members work through their own issues, while also teaching them how to effectively assist the traumatized children. “People had an intuitive sense, but they didn’t have the counseling skills,” he says.

“We had Haitian teachers sit in and observe us running counseling groups with children, followed by debriefing and clinical supervision training meetings with staff after the groups,” Bemak continues. “In one of the groups, we had children draw their most powerful memories of the earthquake and then had them share and discuss the drawings within the group context. The drawings and discussions were powerful, and staff learned how to facilitate painful discussions conducive to healing.”

Bemak and his team also traveled to the town of Jacmel, where they trained psychologists and social workers in trauma counseling. “The emphasis is on building capacity in a culturally responsive way and on helping the people there learn the skills to deal with trauma,” he says. “We don’t want people to become dependent on us; we want to transfer the skills.”

Adds Bemak, “The visit was also to assess for continued work in Haiti, which has led to the development and submission of a major grant that would involve significant Counselors Without Borders teams going to Haiti for the next three years if funded.”

For the past two summers, Bemak has also traveled to Uganda to conduct training for staff members of Invisible Children, an organization that aims both to assist children affected by war and to stop the use of child soldiers. With so many children traumatized by civil war, the staff struggles to deal with the children’s issues, he says. Through a combination of classroom and field training, Bemak trains staff members in trauma counseling, both supervising them and modeling techniques for them.

Bemak says the organization chose the most traumatized youths with whom it was working and asked him to help. Many of the youths were former child soldiers, which is “one of the most horrible things people can be subjected to in the world,” Bemak says. Other children he was asked to help were HIV-positive, rape victims, torture victims, child mothers and orphans. “There’s a tremendous breakdown in the community,” he says. “In the past, the community would have taken care of these children, but now their resources are stretched so thin that they don’t have the capacity to continue family and community traditions.”

Invisible Children focuses on helping children succeed in school and eventually become skilled and financially stable individuals. Bemak’s role is training the staff to better understand how to help deeply traumatized children. “We would talk with the students, siblings, parents, caretakers, extended family members, etc., and discuss what was going on in the child’s life,” he says. “The staff would be present and, after each session, we would process the experience and talk about the intervention strategies and how to effectively help traumatized children heal.”

Although Bemak made the past two summer trips alone, he’s pursuing a three-year grant for Counselors Without Borders. “This would involve exchanges by Ugandan staff coming and spending time training with Counselors Without Borders staff here in the U.S. and Counselors Without Borders team members periodically visiting Uganda to provide counseling and training,” he says. “We are now exploring funding to establish an international prototype for psychosocial support and mental health as a major initiative within nongovernmental organizations.”

Even if counselors are working solely within U.S. borders, they still need to expand their worldviews, says Bemak, remarking that one in 10 people living in the United States is foreign-born. “In Haiti, they believe in voodoo. You can’t just say, ‘I don’t believe in that.’ You have to weave it into treatment. I think we have to be more attuned not only to cultural diversity within the U.S., including cultural healing practices and beliefs, but also the impact that globalization has on an international population. What’s going on in other countries is now affecting us in multiple ways, and counseling needs to get on board with that.

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