Military conflicts cause psychological trauma that can be healed collectively

Wars take a heavy toll on veterans and their families, as well as families of those who do not come back from the battlefield. While soldiers often struggle with post-traumatic syndrome and injuries upon their return home, psychological trauma and alienation is widespread in families and is especially devastating for the children of the fallen soldiers. What can be done to heal the individual and collective trauma, causing long lasting psychological effects? Well, the experience of nations bouncing back from military conflicts, points at reinforced social support and community healing as one of the ways to get better.

For Azerbaijan steps in

The Karabakh War II in the Fall of 2021 was not an exception. Azerbaijani veterans, as well as families of the soldiers, who did not return home from Karabakh, have been struggling with grief and trauma. This is where For Azerbaijan – a nonprofit organization focusing on the needs of the most vulnerable Azerbaijanis – stepped in, focusing its efforts on healing as a community and provision of psychological rehabilitation services.

For Azerbaijan’s 2021 flagship Summer Camp for children

For Azerbaijan organized a Summer Camp titled “Qaliblər Düşərgəsi” for 70 teens – children of the fallen soldiers. The nonprofit’s goal was to mobilize individual and community resources in order to promote sustained recovery and use trauma as a springboard for kids’ growth and transformation. The children, who came from all over the country, often from low-income families, were struggling with their grief, faltering confidence, and impaired sense of self.

Seventy of the camp participants.

For Azerbaijan provided a warm and welcoming environment to facilitate their healing and personal growth. The camp offered its participants a comfortable and secure setting, from restaurant-quality food, freshly redecorated rooms, and on-site laundry to medical and psychological counseling. Camp participants also participated in a myriad of exciting activities, including sports, classes, dance, sightseeing in Baku, and, of course, team building. The team of professionals and volunteers who ran the camp was highly qualified and went through rigorous training to prepare for working with children who recently experienced trauma. For Azerbaijan also involved politicians, artists, religious leaders, celebrities, and other community members, who visited the camp to meet the children and offer learning opportunities and support.

Camp participants enjoying one of many fun activities.

Summer Camp’s many wins show how community healing works

To learn more about what the summer camp has accomplished, we sat down with Malahat Kazibekova, a psychologist specializing in children, youth, and families with extensive experience in alleviating traumatic consequences and psychosocial rehabilitation. Ms. Kazibekova, who is very passionate about the work she has done for the summer camp, explained that through this camp For Azerbaijan created a fun and nurturing environment for 70+ teens and was supported by high caliber professionals, many of them volunteers, determined to make a difference in these children’s lives. They worked tirelessly so that kids, many of whom have never been away from their families before, adjusted quickly to a new environment and community. “Through the two-week journey, the camp helped kids boost their confidence and form a tight support group, which is a fundamental part of healing from bereavement,” said Ms. Kazibekova.

“Through the two-week journey, the camp helped kids boost their confidence and form a tight support group, which is a fundamental part of healing from bereavement.”

– Malahat Kazibekova, psychologist

Many parents as well as the participants were worried before the camp.

Many of those kids, who initially weren’t eager to join the camp and were sad to part with their families, were equally if not more sad to leave the camp and the friends they made at the end of the summer. “What is heartwarming is that participants’ families thanked us, letting us know that many children returned home happier, full of hope and new exciting experiences,” observed Ms. Kazibekova, “they formed new attachments and felt a sense of belonging – all instrumental for healing from trauma.”

Confidence and happiness were palpable towards the end of the camp.

Longer-term support beyond Summer Camp

Ms. Kazibekova believes that Summer camp launched by For Azerbaijan made a palpable difference in the lives of these kids. It helped the children rediscover their identity and sense of self. Yet, more needs to be done to ensure long term support and recovery for the families. So although the summer was over, For Azerbaijan’s support for those impacted by the war did not end. The organization continued to offer opportunities to the children to stay in touch with each other and with volunteer camp counselors because this camp showed that community healing could work. For Azerbaijan created a dedicated website for the Summer Camp project to further nurture the sense of unity among the participants.

Group training sessions with kids are continuing after the camp.

Two volunteers, who worked as summer camp counselors continue to virtually meet with children and organize online events for them. They have also visited their homes. Ms. Kazibekova continues to engage with the children and offer them support by leading thematic group sessions and identifying those kids who need closer attention. “I have been leading regular virtual meetings with kids ensuring that they continue to receive psychological support and learning and development opportunities. I lead discussions on a variety of topics relevant to youth, from how to develop self-confidence to how to do better in school or pick a career,” explains Kazibekova. She also began meeting with children’s mothers to offer support and guidance. For the most part, these women remain emotionally unavailable and have a difficult time opening up about their grief or psychological needs. However, Ms. Kazibekova explains that once mothers realize that working with her is helping their children’s personal growth and future prospects, they begin supporting the initiative and inquire about their own counseling on parenting or adaptation to their new circumstances.

A one-on-one session between Ms. Kazibekova and a participant.

What’s Next?

Thanks to lessons learned from the summer camp experience, For Azerbaijan is launching several other initiatives focused on community healing. For Azerbaijan has already been helping more than 50 veterans and family members of the deceased get treatment, with various diagnostics, spanning from PTSD to depression and insomnia through its Psychological Assistance Program with local healthcare professionals. Its 2021 summer and other experiences showed that addressing emotional and psychological rehabilitation of Azerbaijanis impacted by the Karabakh conflict requires focus on the lack of expertise, institutional arrangement, and general experience in the country to deal with such problems at scale.

This is why For Azerbaijan is seeking to enhance the in-country capacity to support the rehabilitation and integration of those who have suffered loss or trauma in the recent conflict. For Azerbaijan’s support will rest on two pillars: Enhancing Community Healing (building on its work with 70 children and their mothers) and Strengthening Specific Professional Expertise Through Training and Training of the Trainers (building on its Psychological Assistance Program). For Azerbaijan is currently engaging with partners in Azerbaijan and the United States on joint implementation and possible corporate sponsorship. To learn more about these and other For Azerbaijan’s initiatives, please visit its website.

Psychologist, Malahat Kazibekova