Treating trauma. Interview with Barbara Schiller, managing director of stART international

July 2020

After the initial experience of working with emergency education in Lebanon in 2006 and 2007, a group of Waldorf teachers and anthroposophical therapists, including Barbara Schiller, founded the “stART international – emergency aid for children” association. Since then it has been in over 150 war zones and disaster areas to help traumatised children. Its deployment has meanwhile expanded to include emergency and disaster relief, integration and peace work.

The team has been on Lesbos since 2018 looking after refugee children with education and therapy in the overcrowded Moria camp housing more than 19,000 refugees. Also since 2018, there has been the “Art for Peace” programme which undertakes forward-looking peace work at home. In the current corona crisis stART also offers online spaces to strengthen resilience.

Erziehungskunst | Ms Schiller, you were involved from the beginning. What brought you to this work?

Barbara Schiller | The deciding factor was probably that in deciding what to study I was never guided by the question what job I would like to do. My consideration was always to train myself in such a way that I was prepared for the tasks – at least, in what I felt – that life might put my way. It so happened that shortly after my final school exams I had to deal directly with illness and terminal care in my own family. It became clear to me that school and my education in general had not prepared me sufficiently to grasp the actual life tasks that were required. The question I therefore asked myself was what is necessary to be prepared for the unknown in such a way that meaningful action is possible. So I had myself thoroughly trained in my twenties: both very practically in rural domestic management on a large Demeter enterprise as well as in education and art therapy and as a lawyer. I always found that it is difficult to maintain an overview if the perspective is too limited.

EK | As a society, we are exposed to a completely unfamiliar situation also now in particular during the corona crisis – and we are totally unprepared. What is important in crisis situations?

BS | I would say it requires unconditional warmth towards the other, ourselves, the world and existence. Then openness and the most unclouded, broad perspective possible, and a secure inner moral compass which also enables us to curb ourselves. A form of courage which is paired with trust in higher worlds. Also humility and in a certain sense a self-aware consciousness that we have no idea how and why something should work. But the unconditional will despite, or precisely because of such awareness of our powerlessness to go out into the world with full commitment and strength and love and to come together with people of the same mind.

What I don’t see as very helpful in this connection is a know-it-all attitude, pretention, arrogance and a personal striving for greed and power. It is an odd experience – these qualities often appear in emergencies.

EK | What constitutes the specific approach of stART international?

BS | That we try to be responsive. So we don’t arrive with finished recipes which are then imposed someplace. Of course everyone knows their tools and understands something of working with trauma therapy. But: what is needed here and now? Answers to this question are developed locally by the team – together with the surroundings. Here we do not see teamwork as placing the various skills alongside one another, as often happens. We are more concerned about bringing together the different perspectives of the various people which are listened to from a particular point of view and then transformed together into joint action.

EK | What does that mean in concrete terms?

BS | Take the example of Lesbos, Moria. Something like that is always pretty shocking: not just seeing the suffering of so many people but also hearing and smelling it. The shame which overcomes you when you see how we, as human beings, treat other human beings. In this situation it is important that everyone deals with their inner experiences in a disciplined way and, for example, does not overwhelm or molest their neighbour with their own feelings. Then we move on to preparing the work together. A space is created at the beginning in which our own feelings are given space. It is not that simple to ensure that this does not completely get out of hand. And then the questions come: “Why are we here? And what do the children need, the people with whom we are dealing here?” Each person then has their say in this respect from their personal and specific professional perspective. This gives rise to a joint picture out of which we develop and plan our common action. I experience that as real interdisciplinarity, perhaps even transdisciplinarity. And it often happens that one of us, who themselves is a specialist, will become an assistant of their colleague because that is what the situation requires. In other words, they are not the key figure but makes themselves available to help. This is an unusual approach, in my view, because as a rule we always want to contribute our own expertise.

Such an approach becomes particularly complex in crisis zones in which everyone is emotionally very thin-skinned – and in which there is hardly any personal space into which to withdraw; in which the helpers, as happened as recently as spring this year, themselves become the target of attack – and security questions play a major role which by their nature are not decided in a group process but hierarchically by operational management together with the team in Germany. That requires social agility – and a multilayered understanding of reality.

EK | Art is a key function of your work. Why?

BS | I experience art, artistic activity, as an incredibly helpful secret. Artistic activity appears to have a kind of healing effect on the heart. It offers people the opportunity to express themselves at a deeper level than the intellect and to reconnect with something sacred, with our own dignity and with our fellow human beings. How often do we appear to hit a barrier in our experience as we talk. And we simply do not know how we can overcome it. It is a miracle how in poetry, in music, in painting barriers of this kind can either simply be set aside or penetrated – and new things develop.

EK | Would you describe this work also as peace work?

BS | The way in which we are becoming polarised as a community both in the little and the big things is quite evident. If we fail consciously to do things differently this will lead to social cooling and separation. But how can warmth be introduced to our social interaction and community? How can we dissolve boundaries we set ourselves or which are set by others? Since, as a rule, our most familiar form of conversation is the discussion, a type of speech geared towards linearity and drawing boundaries, talking often provides little help. Artistic activity and experience are less predetermined in this respect. Here a warmth space can be jointly created which is correspondingly unencumbered. As I see it, that serves peace and strengthens the power of the heart for peaceful images of the future.

EK | Your training provision also includes protection against indirect traumatisation. Does that mean that the helpers are at risk of traumatisation?

BS | Of course helpers can be traumatised, but whole systems can also develop trauma dynamics. Traumas can be passed on over generations. I consider it a blessing that today we already know quite a lot about the consequences of a great range of traumas, about the consequences of so-called toxic stress. And I believe that a basic knowledge about this should be part of general knowledge. As should knowledge about how the creative and healing forces which reside in each person can be awoken and strengthened in their resilience. The book we published recently, Kinder stärken – Zukunft gestalten (Strengthening Children – Shaping the Future), is intended to give as many people as possible such basic knowledge.

For me personally, the question arises whether traumas aren’t also triggered, we might say, in society – which then give rise to certain reaction processes or form an aura of anxiety. In any event, disasters are increasing and it is high time that we engage more intensively with the whole topic.

Mathias Maurer asked the questions.

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