One Earthquake :~ Infinite Awareness

Groupwork with Support Volunteers following the Turkish Earthquake of 1999

 by Stephen J.M. Bray  

[Biodata and picture of contributor will be found by clicking here]

 

When I awoke on 18th August 1999 the radio informed me that a huge earthquake had occurred the previous evening flattening large areas in districts as far apart as Ismit and Istanbul. Having travelled to the Aegean village of Assos only the previous day, I had avoided feeling the shocks by just a few hours. It was against this backdrop that I arrived in Turkey in order to rest, and to decide if it was a place where I could make my home. 

Meanwhile in Istanbul a group of friends who delighted in exchanging jokes and other SPAM via the Internet now were communicating about the earthquake. They were to become the Ag17 Earthquake Support Group, and I was to meet them some six months later. 

By spring of 2000 reconstruction of the damaged areas had begun. But more than concrete buildings was needed to make repairs. The Ag17 Group were heavily engaged in providing practical, and increasingly emotional support to victims both in villages, and also in a large dormitory in Istanbul, which housed 180 boys who had lost homes and relatives.

 At first Ag17’s tasks were easy, if labour intensive. Find and provide food, clothing, and water-carriers. Partition dormitories to offer privacy; find carpeting, furniture, pictures etc. But the children were making emotional demands on the group, as their systems began to calibrate to the losses that they has suffered. As a result the Ag17 Group approached the Turkish Psychological Association for help in meeting the children’s emotional needs. 

But the Association was already swamped with work. Psychologists were working at sites throughout the smitten areas, and when not working they were training in the special skills required to deal with natural disaster. As a result the Association asked that I become involved with the Ag17 Group, and despite misgivings about knowing little of natural disasters, and having no Turkish fluency or literacy I responded. 

I need not have worried, for the problem presented to me was familiar. For years I had practiced in England as a social work consultant specialising in the needs of children in care. What I found was a voluntary staff of unqualified carers, (the Ag17 Group); and 180 boys whose needs needed assessing and prioritising. Given the magnitude of the problem groupwork was the obvious mode for intervention. 

There is nothing more irritating in life, I feel, than someone coming from outside with irrelevant or naďve ideas, who shows what I am doing wrong, and proves to be right. In the summer of 1999 when members of Ag17 were digging people and the remains of people from rubble, I was spending a cowardly holiday on the beach in an idyllic safe haven. I had no business to be advising, or coaching this fine group of young people, I believed. But here I was, suddenly projected into the role of a respected expert. 

Our group meetings took place each Friday in the basement of the headquarters of the Turkish Psychological Association’s Istanbul Branch offices. Around twenty members of the Ag17 team would attend together with paid government carers, and also some student psychologists and later some interested academicians. We called the meetings a support group. In order to provide some structure I indicated that those present would identify the needs of children, or young people needing specialist professional help, those attending would handle the carer functions. For six weeks I patiently outlined children’s developmental theory, in terms of attachment styles, life stages etc.  

Such concepts as regression, institutionalisation were explicated in words simple enough for simultaneous translation and dialogue to take place. Sometimes my explanations were to me so simplistic as to appear banal, and obvious. But I was reassured when the psychology students would gather them all up, and (since they spoke English), deliver them back to me in psychological jargon. It was then that I knew that I was making relevant connections. Our meetings were intense and would last from four to five hours. 

After about eight weeks the themes of the meetings seemed to change of their own accord. Instead of just talking about the children the discussions widened to include disputes between the volunteers and government officials; and later disputes among the volunteers themselves. People also needed to discuss the impact upon their family life of holding down full-time jobs as professional bankers, sales people, business owners, and computer programmers by day, and being engaged in voluntary work at night. Some marriages crumbled under this tension during the two years that I was involved with this group. Predictably slowly the discussion moved to us talking about ourselves, and recognising that our difficulties with others, were simply reflections of our inability to accept our own imperfections. 

We met thus for a year and slowly the homes were rebuilt in the flattened areas and the children returned to their new homes. 

But by now my curiosity was awakened. I wondered what made these people volunteer? How were they affected? What is the tension between volunteers and professionals? And how could it be mineralised. As a result our group continued to meet as we explored a bank of questions, carefully recording the discussions onto videotape. These were then processed using qualitative methods and transcribed in edited format into a text. As a group this was then edited, finally to be published as the book ~ ‘One Earthquake ~ Infinite Awareness: Consciousness Connecting Humanity’[i]. The title is one that I fully approve, but was generated at a meeting when I was not present. 

The affect of this groupwork is perhaps best expressed in the words of one of the participants: 

“Working as part of a group, committed to the same aim you achieve more than you could have done on your own, also you feel your team members have been your friend for years even though you have met them very recently . . . We talked about things I felt but couldn’t put in words. I feel so much more relaxed as a result. This is something I didn’t expect to experience.”  

The findings of the study were presented at the 16th International Congress of the International Association for Group Psychotherapy, 2003. As a result the author, together with his Turkish born wife Irem were presented the The Abdulkadir Ozbek Award - First Prize given for excellence of scientific content and presentation.

 

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[i] The book is written in Turkish and published jointly by the Ag17 Group and the Turkish Psychological Association. There is currently no English version. A summary of the contents is available at: http://quietquality.com/EarthquakeStudy.pdf

 

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Stephen Bray was born in Dorset and educated at Blandford Grammar School, and Universities in Plymouth, Manchester, Santa Cruz and London. He currently lives in Istanbul. Trained in the arts of dynamic therapy, family therapy, gestalt, process oriented psychology and NLP, he now spends his time supporting those who wish to help others. Details of his work and his contact information may be found at www.quietquality.com
Email: stephenbray@quietquality.com