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Greet Cassiers

«I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity.
Charity is vertical, so it’s humiliating. It goes from the top to the bottom.
Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other and learns from the other»

Eduardo Galeano,
Uruguyan journalist and writer
Rivista GTK n. 07

As a Belgian Gestalt-therapist and painter, working for over 30 years as a therapist/trainer in Europe and in Nepal (since 2011), I was shocked as so many of us by the devastating earthquakes in Nepal in 2015. That is the moment my involvement with refugees started on a conscious level.
We, four other colleagues and I, are teaching Gestalt in Kathmandu since 2011. We founded the Gestalt Institute Nepal and go there to teach every 3 months with two teams. Our first group of students graduated in 2017. Besides the ‘Train the Trainer’ programme, we have three other groups of Gestalt students. In total, there are 54 students[1].
We just had left the country in April 2015 when the earthquakes took place. We felt very close to the people who suffered from this terrible event, so in June we went back to emotionally and psychologically support our students and their families. We also took some money, given to us by friends and colleagues, with us. ’Do some good with it.’ they said. ‘You meet the people over there, you will know what to do with it. ’

And so we did. Together with our students we started the project ‘Care for the forgotten people’.
We have built shelters and small houses, toilets. We distributed food, clothes, schoolbooks and uniforms.
It was a side path of the work we already did with our foundation, Just Solidarity, which supports the Gestalt Education for our students in Nepal since 2011.

A few months later, in September 2015, huge fleets of refugees from the south and east arrived in Europe.
We, all of us, were confronted with the reality and images of endless rows of people, walking, carrying children and belongings, anything of what was left.

Refugees and people losing their home and all their belongings became so much foreground for me, that I had to find a way to express myself beyond words and beyond any rationality.
As a therapist the main way to communicate is language. As an artist, writing poems and painting are a way to express myself and to communicate in a different way.
The practices of painting and writing poems are both gestalt formation processes: giving attention to and taking serious what is foreground using colour, form, line, word, sentence. By now I know I can just trust the process. The next step (word, line) follows. Often there is only one word foreground. Writing it down and trusting the process, the second word or sentence comes and then the third, and so on until it is done.

During that time, I felt very touched by the enormity of the problem. And powerless in the same time, not able to solve this problem, unable to physically help in a practical way. The only thing I was able to do was writing poems and painting those people in all their anonymity, just as we saw them on television, in the news. We didn’t know their names or their stories. But I saw them as brave, courageous, talented and….. exhausted. And yes, writing and painting was also a way of recognising their existence and the miserable state they were in. Painting them in vibrant colours was a way of showing their talents, richness, capacities, who they were in an existential way.

People take flight,
leaving home and hearth
behind;
a child on their backs,
tree apples in the hand
to swap
for some security
on the road.
Up-rooted,
chasing a dream
with five illusions
of certainty-
With a sigh
they take the plunge
and step
across the border.

In October 2018 I organised an exposition together with Iraqi painter/refugee, Raid Alwasety, in Antwerp. We weekly worked together in my studio for 6 months on end. And although we didn’t speak or understand each other’s language, we found each other without any problem by painting together and by sharing our passion in a very practical way. And …. with a little help of google translator.
The exposition ‘Where East and West met each other’ was the fruit of our cooperation and friendship.

In this context, I was investigating my own family history of being refugees. I discovered the following and experienced that I understood myself in relationship to this greater whole and in relationship with the other, the Iraqi painter in this case.

Two centuries ago, the Jewish family Schaack took flight as Askenazy Jews from Poland, by Germany to Belgium. In Antwerp, they first started a business in fabrics and later in diamonds. For reason of security, they changed their name Schaack into Jacques.
My grandmother from my mother’s side, Maria Jacques, was a very good storyteller. As young children we listened to her stories. How she took flight in 1914 to England with two young children, with the diamonds her father gave her, sewed in the hem of her jacket. It was in Southfield, England a few years later (in 1918) when she gave birth to my mother during a bombardment.
After the war the family came back to Antwerp and my grandmother told us, years later, how touched she was by the help and the kindness of the English people.
And the story goes on. Two of our grandchildren are partly Iranian/ Belgian/ Dutch. Their Iranian father came to Europe via Germany and asked for asylum in the Netherlands. This happened 25 years ago. There, he studied at the university and met our daughter (Belgian) who studied anthropology in the Netherlands. They have two children and live their lives in a multicultural fashion.
And from fathers side….., I have Spanish blood.

What do they mean: ‘There is a refugee problem nowadays’?
Migration is of all times!
Cultural diversity is not only an issue today. It has been reality in the history of humankind and will be for evermore.

Contact is the appreciation of differences!
Waauw!

For me as a therapist, in working with individual clients, couples and groups, it is important to have this field of awareness and to realise, also when working in Antwerp in my therapy room with an individual client, this situation is happening in a vibrant social context where insecurity, chaos and need for change is as much a reality as it is in the suffocating situation of my client. Perhaps my client, who’s world is very small at that moment, is in retroflection or projection or denial or whatever his favourite survival or coping mechanism of that moment is. He is used to handling the crisis in his life in the most creative way.
And so is the refugee. So am I.

At the Human Rights conference in Berlin last October, the healthcare for refugees was a common European problem and a big issue. Therapists shared their frustration about the fact that, when their organisations offered counselling or therapy for refugees, people were not coming.
Programmes for refugees to do practical things like cooking were more successful. A Syrian woman student and refugee expressed the need of her fellow compatriots, to build a future in the first place, for recognition of their talents and capacities, and not to be seen as pitiful.
In their turn, the therapists expressed their feelings of powerlessness, the frustration of wanting to help, but not being able to use their skills and experience to talk and work on the wounds.
These therapists had not been aware until this very moment that these refugees did not feel the need to look back or to talk about their traumas. Not at that moment, in this stage of their lives
Yes, of course, refugees have all kinds of traumas, are indeed often confronted with the barbarity of war and the cruelty of nature, but s(h)e is not only wounded. S(h)e is a fighter in the first place, looking for a better and safe place in the world. From the moment there is a safe place, s(h)e needs possibilities/options, recognition of his/her talents and experience, support to build a future.
The traumas will probably become foreground again at a later stage. The pain and loss will awaken, be felt again. The feelings of homesickness, missing family members, the experience of feeling alienated. But, initially, it is enough to recognise them.

I remember the moment that Raid red my poems for the first time. They were translated in Arabic. So now, he was able to read them in his own language. Tears came into his eyes. Two, three minutes he was touched, then he wanted to get going again. But at the same time, he felt seen and it brought us together even more.

Refugees are not victims, are not pathetic, are not pitiful. They are proud, strong, want to go forward whatever it takes. They have nothing more to lose. They want to live.
At that moment we as therapists are powerless if we do not realize that recognition, kindness, encouragement, opportunities are enough to begin with.
We would like to think that we are strong in those qualities as therapists. We appear to be powerless.
Stay with what is.
Follow the energy.
That seems it’s more like doing something then standing still or holding on.

When we worked together in the studio and when we were preparing the exposition, Raid and I spontaneously had small conversations about difficult moments during his journey. Painful experiences, about the bombardments and the tinnitus he is suffering since the bombardments. About the moments that he was alone in a strange environment, separated from his wife and children who were still in Iraq. About the depression and insecurity and also how painting (using his skills) helped him. He recalled the kindness of people who organised material to paint or make a sculpture. They were crucial.

In addition to this, refugees are coming from a background and culture where problems are often faced and coped with in a very different way. Much more family- and cast-oriented for example.
People in Nepal are more thinking in a problem-solving way than in an empathic process-oriented way. Also in healthcare and counselling. As teachers in Nepal, we experience relief when we give attention to how they experience a certain problem. But at the same time, we had to allow for a lot of time to find a common language and words to name different feelings and emotions, and for the distinction between them.
In conversation with my Iraqi friend, I discovered that he was using symbolic and poetic language to describe a situation more than I did. Often, I had to read or listen between the lines to understand what he meant.
In both contexts (Nepal and Iraq), it became very clear that our direct western way to put or explain things, is often experienced as impolite, shocking even, and after that at the same time as a relief.
Yes, ‘Psychotherapy is always rooted in a cultural, social and political field.’

Freedom – Sharing our wealth
When Raid and I were interviewed by an organisation for refugees, they asked us what the most important value was of working together in this cooperative companionship.
Raid named: Freedom.
My value was: Sharing what you have and what you are in experience and talents.
The outcome for both of us is feeling happy and rich.

«I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity.
Charity is vertical, so it’s humiliating. It goes from the top to the bottom.
Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other and learns from the other»
Eduardo Galeano,
Uruguyan journalist and writer

Finally, I only want to share two examples from a therapy context to make this clear.

Case Sarita: Once I was working in my practice in Antwerp with a woman, Sarita, 42 years old. She had been adopted as a small baby from Nepal. She needed some help to handle her situation as single mother with two teenage daughters. As a single parent, Sarita was not able to pay the full amount for the therapy session and after a discussion about this problem, we agreed that she would pay 20 € per session.
But still it remained an issue for her and she felt guilty towards me that she was not able to pay the full amount. The 20.00€ was completely fine for me, so I was wondering how we could come to grips with this situation in a way that it would be ok for her and leave her self-esteem intact.
After having reflected on it, I proposed to her that I would put the 20 euro she paid on the account of the foundation ‘Just Solidarity’ offering scholarships for Nepalese Gestalt students.
A strange thing happened. What she had seen as charity, turned into a gift supporting people from her initial background and homeland. It was amazing to see the result of this proposal. Immediately she didn’t feel guilty anymore. On the contrary, she was a person who was able to contribute and the money would go to people she was related to.
I still see her gentle smile and the light in her eyes during this moment of sharing.

Case scholarships in Nepal: The work we do of teaching Gestalt in Nepal is voluntary. All the teachers (5 trainers) involved contribute by working for free and even pay their own transport or look themselves for funds to pay for it. But to be able to engage ourselves in that way, we needed to find a balance in giving and taking. So, it was important that we clarified that they had to pay for the education to keep our relationship in balance (and not get it for free as usually is the case in NGO’s).
We took the time to find a price which was fitting for both the teachers and the students.
In that way, they do not have to feel guilty, they can feel proud and full of self-esteem and it is obvious that they fully contribute and engage themselves in their turn. In addition to this contribution, the foundation of Just Solidarity is looking for funds to cover the costs. So every student gets a scholarship. The students are informed and have a lot of appreciation.

In both cases it is about: balance in giving and taking, recognition of talents and existence, recognition of the social injustice, of different opportunities depending on what side of the world you are born, or in which social situation you are finding yourselves.

I long for that old,
familiar sky
-a soft and powdery blue with
now and then
a little cloud;
the sweet aroma
of jasmine and
orange-blossom;
the court-yard
where the children played
with some pebbles
and a stick;
the green squares,
the red rose-bush,
the taste of the herbs
with which my grandmother
flavoured the leg-of-lamb.
Ach, where is
my country,
my village,
my home?
Nr. 8 from the series ‘They left their home and hearth’
Yesterday,
a woman smiled
at me.
I still feel the warmth radiate
throughout my body and soul.
Slowly, bit by bit,
I thaw a little.
I did not return the smile,
I was too surprised.
But I did put up my hand
in greeting then,
she was gone,
the chaos of the camp
surrounded me again.
I pulled the blanket up
around my shoulders,
tried to make myself
tiny and
warmed myself
for another while
on this one memory.
Nr.9 from the series ‘They left their home and hearth’

I exist,
Even though
you cannot see me.
I am here and now
and eat your troubled
conscience.
And sometimes, I am
like acid bile so sour
in your throat.
Enveloped in blankets I am
with a woolly hat
drawn over my eyes.
Sometimes I disappear
for a wee while then,
I let myself be heard,
again,
but louder now.
I call your name and force you
to look me in the eye.
Because,
yes,

I do exist.
Nr.11 from the series ‘They left their home and hearth’

Nothing.
No voice.
No colour.
No country.
Endless silence
only.
Where can I go?
Not a human being
on this earth
who waits for me.
No desire
to live
anymore-
And yet-
I will live.
My children
will see flowers
and smiling faces.
They will play,
jump,
learn to sing about
how things were
in the old country.
They will be glad
and smile at me
happily,
all misery forgotten.
Nr.15 from the series ‘They left their home and hearth’

***

[1] The poems are translated into English by Meetje Swellengrebel

Greet Cassiers

married with Ernst Knijff (2 children + 4 grandchildren)
Gestalt therapist since 1983, international gestalt trainer since 1988 in Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Tsjechië, Bulgary, Greece, Georgia, Nepal.
Staff member for 20 years at Gestalt Institute Multidimens, Belgium – the Netherlands (until 2013)
Cofounder (2011) and staff member of Gestalt Institute Nepal. (with Ernst Knijff & Frans Meulmeester)
Co-author (with Ernst) card decks: Coaching Cards (Nl – Eng) & Relatiekaarten (Nl)
Co-founder and chair: Foundation JUST SOLIDARITY (support financially gestalt projects in Nepal)
Member: EAGT & AAGT
Topics: couple therapy (with Ernst) and existential topics
FB: Greet Cassiers and Greet is painting, painting is great!
www.greetcassiers.be

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