The following is a summary of my experience working with SalusWorld in Myanmar. It highlights work being done with former political prisoners, trauma and peacebuilding work and my personal reflection on the SalusWorld model.
Work with former political prisoners:
One of the most moving and meaningful aspects of my time in Myanmar/Burma was seeing the impact of the therapeutic training model on the former political prisoners who attended my first training, Basic Mental Health and Trauma Healing skills. I watched them blossom over the course of the week from having restricted and cautious affect and clear tension in their bodies to fully participating with big smiles on their faces as they engaged in the activities and interacted with other members of the group. In meeting with them after they training was over, they remarked at how transformative the training was for them. They all said it helped them with socialization--since their release from prison, they have been having problems being around people and having difficulties with their families. The training gave them practice interacting, provided a sense of normalcy and a shared professional identity of “helper” and “counselor” with the others rather than solely an identity of “former political prisoners.” They also expressed that the training gave them hope that they can heal and they can help others heal and felt encouraged by this. The other participants also benefited in getting to know former political prisoners as people and colleagues, challenging assumptions they may have had about political prisoners. The former political prisoners are all are eager to continue to collaborate with SalusWorld in some capacity.
Trauma and Peacebuilding Training:
This training had the highest demand, with 36 people wanting to attend and 21 people being admitted to the training. This speaks to the effects of the current changes in Myanmar and more media attention on topic such as peace and peacebuilding. The participants were remarkably open in identifying and discussing collective trauma in Myanmar including historical trauma, dictatorship, and the current ethnic conflicts. We did an extended case study and role play about the violence in Rakhine state that included conflict analysis, looking at root causes, and designing interventions from the perspective of different “teams” who might be involved at different stages of post conflict recovery. They seemed to understand that the situation is more complex than solely a “religious” conflict and they realize how politically motivated narratives can inflame conflicts. The participants’ sophistication and enthusiasm in developing interventions and action plans made me excited about this brave new cadre of peacebuilders!
Personal Reflections on the SalusWorld model
People are often understandably skeptical when they hear of a foreign “expert consultant” going to Myanmar to do trainings for a month since so often this type of training model done in isolation can be problematic. I had my own questions about whether a month would feel like a meaningful/valuable contribution that actually made a difference. Instead, my experience in Myanmar gave me so much pride and respect for the SalusWorld model. It made all the difference being there in the context of many years of SalusWorld relationship building with community based organizations and leaders; having an empowered staff on the ground who are deepening and expanding the work in critical ways; being on a team that embodies mutual respect and cross cultural learnings; and authentic collaborative processes and partnerships that truly meet the needs of participants and the community.
Because so often international development work is done so poorly and with the arrogance of outsiders, it is legitimate to ask, “what is the role of ‘outsiders’, if any?” I believe we are all part of a world community and have something to offer each other. Seeing the eagerness of the participants in the trainings who care so deeply about their communities and want the skills to help them but have little access to these resources that when done in partnership, my answer to this question is, yes, outsiders absolutely have something to offer when there are scarce resources. But the SalusWorld approach is not just about imparting information--we learn so much from what our partners are doing on the ground and how they are adapting the material to fit their context. The evolution of the Sharing Circles is a great example of how the local staff owned and truly developed a best practice that can be useful for other communities and organizations in Myanmar and the U.S. This bilateral exchange of knowledge is what makes the SalusWorld approach so different than other models. My experience in Myanmar energized me about this work and the vision of SalusWorld.