Sudanese traumatherapist Sally Elgizouli applied her experiences in a living group for adolescents in Stuttgart. Photo: Uli Reinhardt

Art against blockages

Trauma therapist Sally Elgizouli wants to understand what kind of experiences refugees from her home country are carrying with them to Europe. In a housing group for minors in Stuttgart she has found out.

By Philipp Mausshardt

When Sally Elgizouli received an email from the head of the Goethe-Institut in Khartoum (Sudan) in April 2017, she was currently working at the Trauma Centre of Ahfad University for Women to develop a new method for children and adolescents to process their traumatic experiences through artistic expression. The email made her curious: It asked whether she was interested in an intercultural programme in refugee work; Germany was currently awarding scholarships to interested applicants.

What happens to people?

Sally had long been wondering what happened to the refugees who briefly stopped in Sudan before pushing farther on to Europe, the USA or even just to a neighbouring African country that seemed to offer them better prospects. How was it going for them there? Who was taking care of them? In Sudan around half a million people are currently living in refugee camps run by the UN organisation UNHCR. And almost four times as many people, more than 2 million, are considered displaced persons in their own country, so called Internally Displaced People (IDP).

In recent years, Sally Elgizouli has treated patients from both groups. She has worked particularly with women, children and adolescents who could not find words for what they had experienced. Most of them were refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia and South Sudan. But some were also Sudanese, people who had been expelled by ethnic conflicts in their own country.
"When I read the mail from the Goethe-Institut, I immediately knew: I have to do that," says Sally Elgizouli. The CrossCulture programme offered by the ifa mentioned in the email seemed tailor-made for her.

Working in the living group, Sally realises that every youth has his individual problems. Photo: Uli Reinhardt

Different adolescents, different problems

Sally is sitting in the living room of a Stuttgart housing group for male youth which includes refugees who have come as unaccompanied minors. She tells us that her stay at the St. Josefs-Gesellschaft, a non-profit organisation, is already coming to an end. For almost three months, at the organisation founded by Franciscan nuns, she has observed how to deal with adolescents – not just refugees, but also German adolescents who are struggling with various issues. One word in particular stands out when she talks about her experiences: "Intervention." "This method of seeing each adolescent as an individual and responding to their specific needs impressed me," she says.

In her conversations with young refugees, she also realised how important it is to know and understand the cultural backgrounds of the young people. As it was, for example, with Mohamed, who ended up in Stuttgart two years ago as an unaccompanied minor after a traumatic escape from Syria. "As a Muslim it was perhaps a bit easier for me to build a bond of trust with him and the other Arabs who shared a similar fate."

During her stay at St. Josef’s, at no time did Sally feel constrained doing her internship as a Muslim in a Christian organisation. "Religion wasn’t an issue. They are open for everyone here," she said. She was particularly fascinated by the coexistence of so many young people with culturally different backgrounds. She wants to take this experience with her when she flies back to Sudan after a short stay in Berlin at the beginning of December.

Sally Elgizouli in a meeting with her colleagues in Stuttgart. Photo: Uli Reinhardt

A mutual enrichment

The collaboration with the Sudanese trauma expert was also a new experience and challenge for Sally’s guest organisation, the non-profit St Josef-Society. Stella Gellner from the therapeutic specialist service found the exchange with her African colleague exciting: "It was especially revealing in matters of materials in trauma- and art therapy, intercultural similarities and differences. Sally conducted a project concerning conflict resolution with the adolescent in which theatre-therapeutic methods were included. All in all it was a successful cooperation and an extraordinary experience – both personally and professionally."

Now Sally has to say goodbye to her young protégés of the Stuttgart housing group. They have arranged to have coffee with her. Tea, coffee and cheesecake are on the table, and the communication barrier is overcome with English. Sally and the teenagers between the ages of 14 and 20 speak it almost flawlessly.

Back in Sudan, more tasks await the young trauma specialist. She wants to continue to work on a method to break through her patients’ internal blockages using artistic expressions. To this effect Sally will bring along experiences from her own family. Her father is an artist and lecturer in art at the Ahfad University for Women of Khartoum. Her mother works with children especially from difficult social circumstances using Creative Expression workshops. Sally wants to continue to maintain the network created through the scholarship and also with migration experts from other countries when she returns to the institute in Khartoum.

"See you again and good luck!" Sally says goodbye to her short-term supervisor and swings her long wool scarf around her neck while walking out into the cold winter’s day.