Dr. Charles Emmrys is an experienced child psychologist who does fascinating work with child soldiers in Sierrra Leone. He has a PhD. in clinical psychology from the University of Ottawa and is a licensed practitioner in private practice in the province of New Brunswick, Canada. He has been involved in working with child soldiers for about a year although the preparation to do this kind of work has taken two years. Dr. Emmrys comments, “I started in 2004 preparing by doing a needs assessment with a colleague of mine who is from there and meeting with different organizations and institutions. (Also we met) a couple of other times to think through projects. During my third visit to Sierra Leone in October 2006, we actually offered programs. Before that, … we had a team of interviewers conducting interviews of child soldiers and what their experiences had been after the war -- what had been most important for them in adjusting to non-combatant life – what had work and what had not worked. We wanted to have that information before working directly with the child soldiers … We also read the literature and wanted to know how others have dealt with posttraumatic stress in post war situations. Of course there are others who have dealt with that and have written about that.”
When asked about his work with child soldiers, Dr. Emmrys said, “We were quite aware of the fact that you have two or three opportunities to intervene as a psychotherapist in the lives of the people in the Third World who are emerging from war -- one is to do work in camps, either in refugee camps or resettlement camps, or camps created for soldiers transitioning from being soldiers to civilians. Those are the main opportunities for intervention. Other than that people are out in the community trying to survive. And surviving in the Third World is very different than surviving in the West, especially since in the West there is an intact and functioning welfare system. At least your survival is to some degree guaranteed (there), whereas in the Third World it is not. So (Third World) people are not going to take time from their work day to go to psychotherapy. It’s just not in their mind set. They’re making sometimes pennies a day or a dollar to a dollar and a half a day and they have to work long hours to get that. You’re not going to get them to take time off to go to psychotherapy, unless there is some kind of reward for them. By reward I mean some kind of a skill that they might be able to sell. We thought long and hard about this and we decided to invite people to a workshop and the first part of each day would be psychotherapy, using some of the psychotherapeutic techniques that we know work for post traumatic stress in Third World countries.
“...surviving in the Third World is very different than surviving in the West, especially since in the West there is an intact and functioning welfare system.”
“The second was the teaching of a skill. That skill was photography. We chose photography, because we thought that was something they could actually sell – taking pictures of weddings and things. It’s a pretty universal thing. People want pictures. We went there with cameras, not very sophisticated cameras. We distributed these cameras and quite a few rolls of film to these participants and we taught them photography. We were trying to kill two birds with one stone here. We were trying to teach them a skill to sell, but we were also trying to give them an expressive medium that they could express the important elements of their lives , because we know that in post conflict situations getting kids or adults to draw the events that have happened to them is helpful. It’s a form of exposure therapy. We wanted to see if we could use cameras in the same way.” Dr. Emmrys recalls that an unexpected effect of this work was the enormous pride that the participants felt.
Since his time is limited in Africa, due to his private practice, Dr. Emmrys does group psychotherapy in Sierra Leone in which he teaches anger management, post traumatic stress symptomotology, family support, and relaxation therapy. He works with eight participants at a time, half girls and the other half boys over fourteen or sixteen. During the twelve year war in Sierra Leone both children and adults were kidnapped and forced into becoming soldiers. However, eighty per cent of the soldiers were comprised of children who fought on the rebels’ side.
Dr. Emmrys finds that children who have had a stable family life for the first seven years of their lives and then became soldiers can recover psychologically from the trauma, since there is something to build on. Sierra Leone also has close kinship networks and extended families which offer child soldiers support which is a big advantage psychologically. There has been peace in that country for the last four years which allows Dr. Emmrys to continue his work. Dr. Emmrys explains, “We wanted to offer everyone a sense of continuity, and by that I mean that some people in our groups were commanders of groups of kids. Some of them were victims as well … We (were) trying to cement a new understanding that we’re all trying to heal here.”
Dr. Emmrys mission to Sierra Leone started with a chance meeting with a person from that country who invited him to come and help do therapy with child soldiers, since there was only one psychiatrist in the whole country and he wasn’t trained to treat children. Since Dr. Emmrys specializes in conduct-disordered children, (who he believes are really traumatized children), he became immediately interested in the plight of the child soldiers of Sierra Leone. Dr. Emmrys remembers, “I told myself that I would give a couple of years, and try to pull something together to see if we could fund it and offer it and that’s what I have done.” When asked how many children were kidnapped and forced to be child soldiers, Dr. Emmerys concludes, “The numbers are hard to guess, but the best guess is 40-50,000 – half of those would have been young girls.”
Thank you Dr. Emmrys for sharing your Story with us.
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