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The Use of Focusing by Afghan Aid Workers

by Patricia Omidian, Consultant for Humanitarian Assistance, Pakistan and Afghanistan

My colleague Nina Lawrence and I, started teaching the Focusing process one year ago in a workshop for 11 management and health staff from an Afghan non-governmental association called Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (CHA) in Peshawar, Pakistan. The efforts are to help Afghan refugees and Afghan aid workers working in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most of those trained in the first workshop are still Focusing on their own!

After the workshop, CHA staff immediately reported that levels of tension and anger at work decreased. CHA's director noted that the managers' problem-solving abilities have improved. One manager stated, "Old family issues and old pain about the war were weighing me down, always increasing my tension and anger. Now that is much better. The pressure is less." CHA staff continue to describe how Focusing has helped them to cope and feel hopeful for the future despite the worry and uncertainty of their situation.

This program started when I was asked to develop a program to help staff deal with the trauma of war and aid work. Afghan aid staff face the gravest dangers. In interviews most spoke about the difficulty in doing their work now because of flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, non-directed anger and depression, and fear of the future. Many of the men have been imprisoned and beaten or tortured, and found difficulty in keeping resulting anger and other emotions out of their family life. Female staff had also been harassed and beaten by Taliban or their rivals, the United Front forces. Life under the previous Rabbani government had also been brutal, with numerous human rights abuses noted by staff.

Debriefing, a process of helping aid or disaster relief workers cope with the emotional stress of their work, is standard procedure for disaster relief workers in the western world. Such service for workers is rare in Afghanistan. The CHA program was launched with the Focusing workshop in March, 2001. Nina Lawrence followed up with 8 days, during 3 months, assisting individuals and helping train the mental health team. She is still writing to many of those she worked with and encouraging them. Because of her efforts, we continue teaching Focusing to anyone who wants to learn.

One of the stories that captured Nina and I came the first time we tried teaching Focusing and let us know we were using the appropriate mental health tool. We did not know if it would work but we had to try. We tried some simple exercises to help them feel the felt sense and used Sufi poetry to give them a grounding point, and then did some pair work on listening and Focusing. At the end, one man looked at us with amazement. He had been having a pain in his side for a long time. He thought it was from stress. And when he focused on it, it left. He just sat there amazed and still speaks of that first time with the same amazement. He still Focuses, but usually alone.

One of the Afghan women trained in that first workshop, Mina, likes the Focusing process so much that she trains anyone who asks her for help. We have found that Focusing is very Sufi, and the Afghans respond to it with ease. One told me that he had studied Sufism for years but never understood how to get to Presence. Now he knows.

Focusing was chosen because it allows deep work on psychological issues to be done without breaching ethical dilemmas of trust and disclosure. The focuser has control over what is said. Those being treated can work on their psychological problems or needs alone, or with a listener who merely reflects back. The listener may never know the nature of the problem. Private issues do not have to be revealed, and breaches of trust are not a risk. The usual talk therapy processes are problematic here. Afghans cannot tell secrets about their families to others. It just is not allowed. I looked at Afghan models of coping and well-being. I wanted a local model that would not need a lot of introduction. As an anthropologist I wanted to see what works culturally, and promote that model. The local context is everything. Focusing seems to be perfect in most of the local contexts, especially with regard to privacy.

We train in groups or individually, even children as young as 8. I think, for Afghans, the group process while learning to Focus is very good. They like the support of their colleagues. Our only problem is that the new Focusers tend to go too deep--into trance states. I have tried bringing them into the process a bit more slowly and that seems to help. Also, making sure they talk to me as they do the process seems to help. Afghans do this very easily. I think it is because of their ritual prayers, which require a focusing level if done right.

In the training, we use the Rumi poem "The Guest House". Because Afghan culture prides itself on kindness toward guests, wanted or unwanted, this is a useful metaphor. In the latest workshop, with staff from International Rescue Committee's (IRC) Female Education Program, 6 women found Focusing very useful and something they could use in their teacher-training program on psychosocial wellness. The women recognized that they needed to help themselves and their teachers before they would be able to help the children. The aid workers have been uprooted from their homes and homelands, lost family members, lost connections with loved ones just like the refugee communities they now serve. The only difference is that these women are employed in positions that have better salaries than many in their families. This in itself can cause problems as, in many cases, husbands, fathers and brothers remain unemployed.

As we worked through the focusing process, where one meets one's felt senses as guests to the inner self, (like in the Rumi poem) a full range of emotions came up. By Focusing on them many of the staff felt a calming and release. In one session, the emotions confronted were very strong and brought back very painful memories of the war, about which the women openly talked. In the end many found some easing of pain and a cleared space to find comfort inside. All were invited to work one on one with the consultant if they wished. The stories they shared were horrifying-but they were able to talk about the cruelty of the various factions involved and how this had touched their own lives. It was a deeply moving time, filled with tears.

I find that most Afghans, after the initial training, do not like using a listening partner. Yet, recently I was asked if I would consider a weekly lunch time Focusing group session at work. I think this is a good idea. Perhaps, as a non-Afghan, I am seen as a safe person to talk to and to lead such sessions. Besides, the ones who asked me told me that they like my voice and find my tone and pitch helpful.

The staff of CHA's CeReTechs branch has translated the Focusing Guide card from Ann Weiser Cornell's sessions into Dari. We use this extensively and find it helpful with some cultural modifications. Also, we are in the process of translating Ann's book into Dari, which is about half done.

I welcome contact but may be able to respond only when I am in Peshawar--so far no email in Afghanistan for me to use. Any suggestions from others working in similar situations or with refugees, would be helpful. E-mail contact is [email protected] 

This page was last modified on 04 December 2006