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Scars to heal

The Writebols at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta in August, five years after Nancy underwent treatment there for Ebola (Ron Harris/AP)

Disease

Scars to heal

In a country ravaged by war and epidemic, an American Ebola survivor and a Liberian pastor help residents recover from trauma

In August, Nancy Writebol, a missionary with SIM International, celebrated exactly five years of being healed of Ebola. She had contracted the virus during the 2014 outbreak while helping spray health workers with decontaminating bleach at Eternal Love Winning Africa (ELWA) Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia.

On this anniversary of leaving the U.S. hospital where she received treatment, she made dinner with her husband David Writebol, sitting at the table in the same house in Liberia where she had been sick and isolated before her medical evacuation from the country. The Writebols talked almost laughingly about all they went through. They’re a cheerful, jocular couple with a long career in hard places.

But certain memories still make Writebol cry. When she got out of the hospital, she was so thankful to be alive and Ebola-free that she was caught off guard by the way people treated her and her husband afterward. Close friends avoided her, fearful about Ebola. She carried an official letter declaring her to be a safe, noninfectious human being, but at one U.S. airport agents pulled her aside and brought out people in protective gear who said they were going to call in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We were almost afraid to be seen because we didn’t know how people would respond to us,” said Writebol. “To this day it’s still painful.”

Soon after returning to Liberia with SIM in 2015, Nancy Writebol began work as a trauma healing facilitator for Ebola survivors in a country with the barest of mental health resources. She can identify with Liberians not only in terms of surviving Ebola, but also in having her home looted right after she was medically evacuated—something many Liberian survivors experienced.

Evangelical Church of Liberia Pastor Jeremiah Kollie works with Writebol to lead trauma healing sessions and train facilitators. They point out they are not trained psychologists, but simply offer Biblical counseling resources.

Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images 

A medical worker in Monrovia, Liberia. (Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images )

“People can put on brave faces and pretend that all is well, but in their closets they are hurting,” said Kollie, who was displaced during Liberia’s civil war. “When you talk about what is deeply buried in your heart, that is healing. It’s able to equip you to face future challenges.”

Kollie and Writebol use curriculum adapted for Liberia from the American Bible Society, offering what they say is the only Biblically based trauma healing in the country. The curriculum goes through basic principles of grieving, anger, and forgiveness, and then addresses specific situations such as domestic abuse, rape, or living in the midst of conflicts. Kollie helps too with cultural contextualization. The word “trauma” implies going mad to Liberians, so the facilitators use words like “heart wound.”

On ministering to women who have been raped, the curriculum says, “They should be allowed to say how angry and ashamed they feel. It is very common for rape victims to be angry with God. This is okay. God is able to accept their anger and still love them. It is better for them to be truthful about their feelings than to hide them.”

Kollie and Writebol have led healing sessions with rape victims, the paramilitary, the police, firefighters, children orphaned by Ebola, and men who worked in the national crematory during the Ebola crisis.

The crematory group had to take infectious bodies from families and burn them instead of giving the traditional washing and burial. Because those men did something culturally horrific, they felt the full stigma of the country while also occasionally coming across the corpses of people they knew. Their work felt like a “crime,” Kollie said.

Many of the crematory workers turned to alcohol and drugs to cope. When Writebol and another Evangelical Church of Liberia pastor hosted the first trauma healing group with them soon after the crisis ended, she could tell the men weren’t ready to discuss what they had been through. She told them to call her when they were ready. A year later, they did, and went through the entire program. Some are doing well now, although one that Writebol knows of is still struggling and drug-addicted.

Wade Williams/AP 

Healthcare workers transport a body for burial. (Wade Williams/AP )

The trauma groups often lead to a discussion of other needs. One girl, a junior in high school, came through their trauma healing program after losing both of her parents to Ebola. A friend of the girl’s family had taken her into his home, but the man ended up impregnating her. The trauma healing group provided counseling resources to her as she had the baby and graduated from high school. She wants to go to nursing school but will have to find tuition money.

Kollie and Writebol already have so few resources that it’s difficult for them to meet such needs. Resources are especially slim now that SIM has appointed Writebol the head of its global trauma healing initiative, which takes her to trainings around the world.

When the European Union had offered a grant of 750,000 euros for trauma healing in Liberia, the SIM team wrote a proposal. But Writebol said the EU cut their application.

“We didn’t address how global warming affects trauma,” said Writebol with a wry smile. “So they said, ‘We’re sorry, but you’re not being considered.’ … Who writes a grant based on global warming affecting trauma?”

Kollie acknowledges the deep traumas of war and Ebola and notes that forgiveness is the biggest issue they work through in the group sessions. But he also emphasizes the trauma of everyday life in one of the poorest countries in the world, where economic opportunities seem out of reach for average residents.

“The war has come and gone. We stay struggling,” said Kollie, noting the regular hopelessness Liberians feel. Many believe that politicians have betrayed them and will probably betray them again. “[The trauma initiative] has allowed people to express their hurts and take their pain to the cross, where they find healing.”

Comments

  • CJ
    Posted: Thu, 09/19/2019 01:09 pm

    "the only Biblically based trauma healing in the country." Which country?

    Crisis Care Training International has provided training for helping children since 2004. They offer international online training. CCTI was founded by  "Dr. Phyllis Kilbourn is a pioneer leader in ministry among children at risk and children in crisis. While a missionary among post-war traumatized children in Liberia and Kenya with WEC International, Phyllis was providing trauma and crisis care (in the 1980s), before trauma care was well known."

    "for training caregivers working with children who have experienced trauma from crisis experiences such as physical, sexual or emotional abuse, abandonment and/or exploitation."

    Mission statement: To bring the healing and hope of Christ to children and families in crisis situations, through training and resources.