From a hurricane, a butterfly emerges

Applying the Method of Somatic Experiencing to Humanitarian Aid in Puerto Rico

By Elsbeth Horbaty, Rain Barrel Associate

Deeply moved by the devastation hurricane Maria had caused in Puerto Rico in September 2017, I was determined to support the recovery work on the island, hoping that my knowledge of humanitarian assistance operations and my newly acquired method of trauma recovery called Somatic Experiencing could be my small contribution towards the island’s reconstruction.

My challenge was to find an approach whereby I could assist local aid workers to alleviate the suffering in their traumatized communities and motivate them to continue with their exhausting work. How could I, as an individual, help them to recover emotionally, strengthen their organizations and at the same time share their experiences with others? How should I adjust my approach to their local culture and the working methods of each organization?

I remembered a quote from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tse: “What the caterpillar sees as the end, is the beginning for the butterfly”. What if I could find a key moment that would be remembered by the participants as the moment that made a significant change in their outlook, a new beginning? I decided to call the project Mariposa (Spanish for butterfly).

Before flying to Puerto Rico in January, I prepared a three-day workshop program, consisting of soothing exercises, drawing, singing, dancing, mourning and organizational strengthening.  I prepared myself to work with groups of artists and humanitarian groups who were helping with the hurricane clean-up and had agreed to work with me. As soon as I arrived, I was confronted with the reality: To take off three (!) days sitting in a workshop? To work with emotions? No way, nobody was going to be interested in taking time out for this unfamiliar venture.

Adapting humanitarian aid methods

I compromised. After compressing the program into one day, volunteers agreed to help organize the workshops, but I faced new challenges. The participants came late and told me that they would stay only for a while to see if this was something they could use. Nobody would turn off their phones. How on earth could I create the calm, focused environment that this type of reflective process requires?

Looking at the participants, I could feel their impatience, their fidgeting and the tapping of their feet. These body movements I know well: They are all signs of people who have been exposed to a lot of stress. So, I took out my sheet with the main points, hoping I could help to begin to calm their nervous energy – and mine:

  • Pause
  • Ground
  • Breath
  • Self sooth
  • Self-contact
  • Resource
  • Orient

I had learned in Somatic Experiencing (SE) that “orientation” is a natural response of animals and people: they scan the environment to assess their security situation. The body engages with the environment to register and map out, is it safe? It requires a calm space to be able to feel the body, to quietly look around and to be aware of what day it is and where we are.

In a second step, I asked all the participants to express something with their body to show it some gratitude for having carried them through the difficulties of hurricane Maria. I asked them to make a statement by moving their body in such a way as to make it aware that we are alive. People looked puzzled, but slowly started to tap on their legs, caress their arms or put their hands on their faces.

After the initial hour of diverse exercises, most participants were not only calmer, but started to be interested in what was coming next.

Murals to remember

Painting the strengths of the people to help themselves, El Checo, San Juan, Puerto Rico

I knew from my experience that people can develop incredible strength under stress and in emergencies. I wanted to pay tribute to this type of powerful feeling, knowing that it would remind the people of the generosity they showed to their community when cleaning up, handing out food or wading for days through mud and sewage. So, in the first workshops, I asked them to write down all these post-disaster activities they had been carrying out. Later, I was able to hire two artists who helped the workshop participants to draw their experiences on a wall outside their community centers. These murals would remind everybody of the help they gave to their neighbors and, as such, to be a constant resource for all of them.

Painting the strengths of the people to help themselves, El Checo, San Juan, Puerto Rico

While the artists completed the mural on the wall outside, we took a moment to give everyone the opportunity to honor what was lost: people, animals, material things. In Somatic Experiencing, we do not ask people to talk too much about their traumatic events as this can provoke retraumatization. Therefore, I asked the participants write down on a piece of paper, without speaking, the most difficult issue they had to deal with after the hurricane.

Then we went outside and burned the papers together.  We learned body exercises for dealing with grief: containment (hug oneself, touch others on their shoulders). This was the moment when we all formed a spiral of people and ended up in a collective hug, representing the chrysalis of the butterfly. We stayed for a long moment, all together, to allow the sadness to dissipate.

We then turned the human spiral the other way so as to reorient our vision outwards and forward. I asked each person to tell the group what he or she liked to do and what they are good at doing and to find ways to reinforce this within their bodies. This allowed all of them to connect with their power and see their contributions to the team.

When I realized that people still were interested in sharing, we started to discuss their vision of the organization they represented:

  • How do we continue?
  • What can I contribute?
  • Which organizations/persons are our network?

The group then went to see the finished paintings on the wall outside and wrote down their shared agreements. Faces began to reflect joy, satisfaction and happiness:  “I realized only now all the work we did.” “I can see now more clearly in which direction our organization could be working.” “I realized that it is important to take care of myself so I can take better care of others”, “I see less chaos”, were some of the reactions.

When doing the workshop in the community of El Checo, a few health workers participated. They asked me to repeat the workshop with some of their other teams, because, as one participant said, “we feel the support it brought equalled about 30 hours of individual therapy sessions.”

After the first workshops, I asked about their initial hesitations. I learned that many Puerto Ricans had been used in the past to be a subject of unethical experiments for pharmaceutical companies. For example, the contraceptive pill was first tried out on women in Puerto Rico before it was tested on women on the US mainland. I started to understand the concerns of the men and women regarding their participation in a sensitive exercise they had never heard of.

It made me appreciate even more that most of them had stayed all day, participating, sharing thoughts and feeling better by the end of the workshops. But it also made me more careful about taking photos and filming the workshops. I also avoided media coverage despite having had requests from supportive professionals.

Stress converted into strength to help each other, Farmers Group in Bartolo, Puerto Rico

Project Butterfly

These first workshops laid the foundation for the elaboration of a modest project aimed at supporting community leaders in San Juan to honor their work and help them find new strength and commitment. The project Mariposa was financed by a small Swiss foundation and a contribution by the teacher of Somatic Experiencing in Switzerland, Urs Honauer. In Puerto Rico, the project was supported by the Alianza Sanjuanera from the City of San Juan and the extraordinary organizational support of Lisa Ladner and Anna Melendez.

Nilsa Medina, head of Alianza Sanjuanera, sharing her experience in the mural in Playita, San Juan. Puerto Rico

I chose a mix of body awareness exercises from Somatic Experiencing and workshop tools from Linksbridge, Seattle. Project Mariposa hired the local artists Carmelo Sobrino and Zuania Minier to support the participants of the workshops in painting a mural of their experience on walls outside of their community centers. These murals are now daily reminders of the support the community leaders and the neighbors gave to their community after hurricane Maria and how they learned together to cope in those difficult moments.

What was achieved by project Mariposa?

  • 15 workshops for the preparation and reorientation of
    • farmers’ organizations
    • health workers
    • artists
    • social workers
    • employees of the District Association of San Juan Municipality
    • professors of the Instituto de Desarrollo Municipal, Ponce
    • women’s organization and victims of violence
    • 25 individual treatments for persons from these organizations.
  • One Workshop, entitled “Do No Harm”, which aimed to determine if this project could do any inadvertent harm to participants.

The final mural in El Checo, San Juan Puerto Rico

 Presentation at the European Conference on Somatic Experiencing

I was able to present this project at the European Conference of Somatic Experiencing that took place in Potsdam, Germany, in June 2018. Together with a small group of Somatic Experiencing practitioners who also started to apply the method when working in humanitarian aid, we discussed how to improve these workshops so that more men, women and children who suffer from natural and manmade hazards can benefit even more in the future.

So, in some ways, I felt that the people of Puerto Rico had once again laid the groundwork for a new approach. When I left the island, I felt that the butterfly was flapping its beautiful wings.  One of the women told me: “We hope you write about all this. We do not have time. We are still busy surviving.”

A few weeks later in June, FEMA started to remove one of the three mega-generators which had been installed last year to support the power grid on the island. A last minute plea from Puerto Rico’s governor managed to leave one of them for the next six months. The remaining generator might help keep the lights on for some hospitals or police stations should the island get hit again during the new hurricane season, which had just started again.

New clouds over Puerto Rico

Posted in Rain Barrel.

One Comment

  1. Thank you for the inspiration. I love the final mural of El Checo.
    Your text made me think about the situation in Nicaragua where I am also trying to have long workshops when people dont have the nervs…
    There is a way!
    Elsbeth, Iwish you all the best for you and your work. Yvonne has told me about you and I hope we will meet some day. Love, Judith

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