Growing up Refugee

For the first time since World War II, the number of displaced people in the world has surged to more than 50 million; the majority are children — a sobering fact.  These are children whose “happy childhood” is marred, fractured, displaced, or non-existent.  These are children who, in the course of displacement, can be exposed to the horrific images, sounds, and smells of war, massacre, torture, and abuse.

When I pondered my thesis research topic, I knew I wanted to travel to Haiti and work with social trauma, corporal resiliency, dance/movement therapy (DMT), and Vodou.  I did this and have spent the 17 years since my thesis research working with children throughout Haiti whose lives have been affected by the myriad of disasters, violent episodes, and ongoing poverty that plague this country. Haiti is truly a place where exposure to potentially traumatic events is commonplace; it is also a place frequently noted as having a depth of resilience and spirit unlike anywhere else.


My earliest experiences as a dance/movement therapist were with street children and former street children, many of them gang members/former gang members, in Haiti. I began working with a small program in Port au Prince and, from there, branched out to work with a variety of programs, from drop-in to residential, in many different locations. I’d like to share a story from my ongoing work with a small residential program for former street children in Port au Prince.

Before I share, a few words on “trauma” and “resiliency.” These two concepts are often used together, but their relationship has yet to be described in the holographic way I have learned about from my experiences in Haiti. From my experiences, they seem to co-exist, especially in children. First, trauma was a buzzword, and then, resilience became a buzzword. They are each researched, theorized, and conceptualized in terms of clinical work and “trauma-informed care;” only recently have they begun to be “co-investigated” in terms of their relationship. It has been my observation for many years and is my understanding, at this point, that trauma and resiliency are like yin and yang. In ways I have yet to put into words, they relate like the entwined “dancing” spirals of DNA. The young man who is central to this story is the embodiment of this idea.

This residential program is a combined educational and life skills program for children who are left on the streets for many reasons; it is also a guest house for visitors wanting to experience Haiti from a “non-touristy” perspective.  There are many more children on the streets than a program like this can assist at any given time.

When I stayed at the guest home, I engaged in two primary activities. The first, individual dance/movement therapy sessions with some of the recently arrived boys, still suffering from the abuse they experienced on the streets (or that initiated their living on the streets). Secondly, I worked with the program’s resident dance troupe, which was directed by one of the longer term residents – a former street child himself.

I worked specifically with the boys in the dance troupe on “embodying feeling” so that, as their opportunities to perform increased, they could enhance their performance with the affective or emotional tone of the experiences and stories they were dancing. As all the stories they told were based on their own experiences, the feeling aspect was important.

After one of my classes, a boy told me he wished I could accompany him to a program in the mountains above Port au Prince. He was beginning to work with a group of children in a residential program started by a French NGO that had since left Haiti and, therefore, left the children. These children all had severe disabilities, either from birth or from such prolonged exposure to torture and abuse that they were unable to function without assistance.  In our conversation, I discovered that this young man had learned of the program on a recent visit to the area, when he met one of the boys wandering the streets near the residence. He helped the boy, who appeared lost, get home, and was greeted with a home full of boys. The dedication of a few local staff touched him, so he began to visit the home when he learned it might be closing. As he became more involved and attached to the boys living there, he began to bring other young men from his home/program with him.

Photo by FMSC Distribution Partner – Haiti

When the possibility of the program closing became reality, the boys went to their program director to inform him they wanted to help. After many discussions and visits, he told the boys they could make room for one or two children, but could not do any more due to their own limited resources. The boys regrouped, visited the home again, and returned to the director, informing him that they had collectively decided to adopt the entire home; they would run it as one of their service programs.

In the following years, both programs grew. The care, nurturing, and service to the program in the mountains became an integral part of the program I had initially worked with in Port au Prince. The composite case I present in this week’s webinar is from this program, which I never would have had the privilege to work with if that young man had not so compassionately embodied the spiral dance of trauma and resiliency that defines Haiti.



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