Psychologist for Traumatised Children: A tale of flower girls, dragons and soldiers

Lela Schmid-Ksovrelashvili Lela Schmid-Ksovrelashvili

The war between Georgia and Russia has traumatised thousands of children. By acting out their stories on stage, the refugee children are able to express themselves again.  

Dramatic music is played on the piano – their big moment has arrived. Marika pulls aside the brown curtain and self-consciously steps onto the stage. The slender girl is carrying a basket full of flowers beneath her arm. The play is called “The flower girl”. The lead actress but also the scriptwriter is Marika (her name has been changed), a street child from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.

Thousands of children traumatised by war live in Georgia. Both Russia and Georgia lay claim to the two provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia which has continually led to military conflict. Around 247,000 internally displaced people from the provinces live in makeshift shelters. The refugee camps are like ghettos. These people cannot return home as the borders have been closed. While the refugees live in their own country, they have been uprooted and robbed of their identity. To make matters worse, Georgia offers them few prospects. The former socialist republic has faced economic difficulties since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The youth unemployment rate currently stands at 31%.

The “Nergi” – which means “seedling” in English – project provides support for children like Marika who have been traumatised by war. The project initiated by the Georgian SFP-certified (Swiss Federation of Psychology) psychologist Lela Schmid-Ksovrelashvili aims to make therapeutic group sessions for children a permanent part of support for refugees in Georgia. Georgian psychologists are being trained as part of the support programme. They then pass the knowledge gained onto their colleagues. 

A psychologist forced to flee

Lela Schmid-Ksovrelashvili came up with the idea for the project when she herself experienced what having to flee was like. She was on holiday in Georgia with her husband in 2008 when the conflict flared up again. Soldiers advanced on the Georgian capital, occupying the airport and making it impossible to fly home. “My husband and I had to fly to Switzerland via Armenia.” This experience left a deep mark on the psychologist: “I was forced to leave my relatives behind in the knowledge that their safety was in danger.” Having decided to put her idea into practice, she asked Allan Guggenbühl – her colleague at canton Bern’s educational guidance service – if he would like to use the mythodrama approach he had developed on Georgian refugee children. This method based on psychodrama involves group therapy where a story is used to represent a conflict to be dealt with. It uncovers issues that therapy sessions fail to identify. “Allan Guggenbühl was extremely enthusiastic and immediately agreed to get involved.” Lela Schmid-Ksovrelashvili had found someone else to take up the cause of these children traumatised by war in addition to her husband David Schmid, who is also a psychologist. “If just a few of these children find the right path then our efforts will have been worthwhile.” 

From street child to lead actress

In the case of the street child Marika the success of the therapy hardly seemed a likely outcome. The girl was abandoned by her parents in the chaos of war and went to live with her 85-year-old grandmother. Bringing up her grandchild nevertheless soon proved too much for her. Marika survived alone on the streets, selling icons and flowers in restaurants and sleeping in internet cafes. She sometimes visits an organisation working on behalf of street children which provides her with refuge from a hostile world. Marika receives a warm meal and a structure to her day at the Rustavi centre. Equally importantly, she gets the chance to work through the trauma she has suffered.

The psychologists from the “Nergi” project sought to establish contact with the street children at the day centre and asked the withdrawn youngster whether she wanted to take part in a play. Marika’s response was dismissive: “I’m definitely not coming.” She found it difficult to trust adults who had so often bitterly disappointed her. After some time she nevertheless increasingly opened up and found the courage to take part in one of the mythodrama sessions. She soon took off her pink overcoat in which she had initially buried herself. She began coming up with ideas for her own play – a story telling of her life as a child on the streets. In the play entitled “The flower girl”, the young main actress is turned away by restaurant guests. They even reproach the girl, claiming that street children like her put the children of middle-class families in danger. Two police officers warm Marika that they could not do anything if drunken men were to become abusive, telling her that she should be at school in any case. 

A dragon wants to destroy the family

The aim of the mythodrama therapists is to identify children’s fears and to encourage them to face up to them. “Stories enable children to indirectly tap into their sub-consciousness,” explained Lela Schmid-Ksovrelashvili. In a second step, they are empowered to find their own coping strategies. “The children discover individual solutions on stage,” indicated the psychologist. One of the stories, for example, is about a king whose realm is under treat from a dragon. When the children are asked to develop the story, they come up with very different endings. One of the children closed the borders as king to keep the beast out and to allow everyone in the country to live in peace. Another took on the dragon and slayed him. A third child unexpectedly remarked: “My mother is worse than the dragon.” It emerged that the youngster was frightened of his parents divorcing and being left alone. The boy associated his mother with the dragon because the dissatisfaction with their difficult situation as a refugee family was mainly being expressed by her. Benefits of mythodrama – in the role of king or queen, the child has control over the situation, something which refugee children rarely feel. The story is not too close to home as it deals with fear of the dragon and not displaced children in the real world.

Nergi, the “seedling ”, was planted in 2009. 16 Georgian psychologists have been trained in mythodrama thus far. They each carried out 224 hours of therapy and each received 112 hours of supervision. The delicate seedling has grown into a plant in full bloom. In a second phase, the project leaders hope to use contacts with Swiss investors in Georgia to enable youngsters to undertake vocational training. The project is having a sustainable multiplier effect thanks to collaboration with local partners. Nergi may soon produce new seedlings offering prospects to flower girls like Marika. 

Information:

The “Nergi” project is funded by private donations. You can help children come to terms with their trauma by making a contribution to the following postal account number: IBAN CH82 0900 0000 8507 0089 2, Mythodrama Verband Schweiz, Projekt Nergi-Georgien, 8001 Zurich. www.nergi.ch

Name: Lela Schmid-Ksovrelashvili
Profession: FSP psychologist with canton Bern’s educational guidance service
Professional experience: Dealing with trauma, group therapy, mythodrama, working with children and young people displaying behavioural problems