By Silvana Quiroz
RELIVING THE TRAUMA
It was a Tuesday morning, a sunny day with what remained of a fiery summer season. Sandra woke up with a call, it was her sister asking her if she knew what was happening. “I told her I was sleeping so I didn’t know what was happening, and then I saw the planes” Sandra recalls. Around 8:46, while Sandra was sleeping, a plane had flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York. By the time she turned on the tv, the second plane hit the South Tower and at 9:37 the story became local when a plane that was hijacked from Dulles airport crashed into the west side of the Pentagon. “That is something I will never forget, it was chaos, in Washington the people were walking on the streets because there was no METRO, it was awful we didn’t know what was happening,” Sandra said.
During the following hours, everything stopped not only in the country but around the world. People from all over tuned in to watch what was happening. They saw the live broadcast of the buildings plummeting to the ground while hundreds of human beings lost their lives. The images and the fear were real, triggering memories, for many who lived through violence, in their home countries. Sandra remembers, “as I was watching the images I felt so alone, so insecure, I had a lot of emotions going through my mind, I could not stop crying and my feelings were all over maybe because I was pregnant at the time, I just didn’t know what to do.”
Catalina Sol, Executive Director of La Clinica del Pueblo, reflects, “I think that when people think of 9/11, they think of not only the horror and the attacks but also of unity, but for immigrants, it was also a time of great fear thinking that you have left a place that was already a place of war and now you are not safe again, or fear that you will be blamed for the attacks and the persecution of outsiders will begin with us.”
Sandra did not know what to do with all those feelings and fear, the only place she felt safe was every time she went to see her doctor at La Clinica del Pueblo, and it was there where she would find the answers she needed.
A SAFE SPACE
In 2001 La Clinica del Pueblo shared space on Irving Street. “We occupied a space that was open so our clients and community members could literally just walk in. On 9/11 and the days that followed many people in our community who had experienced war, trauma or attacks, were frequently retraumatized and in some cases, they had PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) including our own staff,” Sol remembers.
The traumatic events of 9/11 created a significant impact on the community. Alma Hamar, Lead Mental Health Therapist, was part of the mental health department, and she recalls “all of a sudden we started to see patients coming with PTSD, they were depressed, stressed, anxious and some presented panic attacks, they didn’t know why they felt that way. We decided to create psychoeducational workshops to have a safe place and we could explain the reasons why they felt that way and the work needed to begin to heal.”
One by one the patients arrived seeking help and a place to talk about their feelings. The groups met on Saturdays, families came together and poured out their fears as Ms. Hamar listened, “there was a woman that experienced the war in El Salvador and she had been constantly talking about the war near her children, most of the things she shared were sad and scary experiences. When 9/11 happened, her kids started to be afraid and anxious. They would hide under the table in fear that something like that could happen to them. We then realized that they were exposed to the television showing the same images repeatedly, this exposure triggered the traumas they had experienced through their mother’s stories about the war.”
It was particularly important for La Clinica to have a safe space to provide some response, as Sol shares “it wasn’t even planned, patients were coming in, in crisis needing to talk, feeling afraid and triggered; so, our therapist and other therapists from the community that worked with us used La Clinica to host groups for the people that were coming to get help and they brought their kids. The therapists understood the need not only to help them deal with what they were seeing but also to provide parents with some guidance on how to support their children through a traumatic event.”
This family approach of dealing with trauma was the birth of Mi Familia, a family strengthening program that helps families to separately examine the same kinds of situations within their age groups. “This approach has been vital for the last 20 years and it was the seed for some of our other programs in the school system now with newcomers who are themselves adolescents, it is one-way for us to provide health services for the individual, the family, and the community,” Sol said.
Sandra gave birth 3 months after 9/11, her son is now 20 years old. Throughout the years, together, they participated in many psychoeducational workshops, “I am so grateful to Mi Familia because it helped me from the very first moment when I came to La Clinica to talk about my fears during 9/11, it helped my children dealing with their emotions, it has been 20 years and I am so happy that Mi Familia still here for us, the community,” Sandra concluded.
*The drawings on this story are from children that participated in the Mi Familia groups for 20 years since it was created after 9/11.