Tsunami Spiritual Retreat

Selesa Hillhomes, Pahang, Malaysia
May 14-20, 2005


The Tsunami Spiritual Retreat was organized by ICF to provide activists caught up in the December disaster an opportunity to get away from the stress of their work for a few days, seek some inner healing and renewal, and share experiences with others living in a similar situation. It was hoped that this retreat would offer them the encouragement and energy they need to return to their field of work and continue to assist tsunami victims in rebuilding their communities and getting the assistance require to start life again.

Because of travel costs and language differences, it was decided to focus this retreat only on Aceh, Malaysia (Penang and Langkawi) and Southern Thailand. Participants were activists living in tsunami-hit areas who had lost family members, homes and work, as well as activists who have now become involved in the tsunami-affected areas as care givers and development workers. They represented the Muslim and Buddhist faiths. Some of the resource persons were Christian.

The retreat was deemed to be an important activity by the ICF committee because these activists are a very important avenue for touching the lives of the tsunami-affected communities. In the areas of Aceh and Thailand, the work of rebuilding peaceful interfaith communities is very important. ICF can begin to build relationships through these activists. But the tsunami and the extremely difficult tasks of rebuilding in its aftermath is taking a severe spiritual and physical toll on the activists. As one Acehenese put it, “I am like a turtle. On the outside I have a very hard shell, but on the inside I am tender and hurting.” This particular participant had lost his entire family and home in the tsunami but remains actively working as a facilitator in the rehabilitation efforts. With his hard shell visible to those around him, few may be aware of his own spiritual, mental and physical trauma. Thus, these activists also need special attention so that they may remain strong and healthy in their crucial contributions to the building of new communities.

The retreat was hosted by Pusat Janadaya (Empower) with the assistance of the Women’s Development Collective. They not only arranged the venue for the activity, but also identified excellent resource people to help throughout the week. ICF owes them special thanks for all of their hard work and commitment. Also a special thanks to Ms. Lin Chew for arranging funding to cover the travel expenses of seven Acehenese participants.

I. Objectives of the Retreat

- To provide activists directly affected by the December tsunami with a supportive atmosphere in which they can share their experiences, their pain and their hopes.
- To support these activists as they renew their energy and spirits for the continuation of their work among communities damaged by the tsunami.
- To find ways to encourage the activists in the long-term work of building interfaith communities of justpeace.
- To strengthen and expand the interfaith network in Asia, and to encourage interfaith cooperation in building communities of justpeace

II. Retreat Strategy

As it is not always possible to predict when people will be ready to talk about their feelings following a traumatic experience, the program of this retreat was kept as flexible as possible. Space would be provided for participants to share their fears, angers, sadness, etc if they wanted, but only if they expressed the readiness to do so. This space for opening up to their inner feelings was provided in several ways.

-During the introduction time, they were asked to respond to four questions through drawings. When they described their drawings to the group, they could share their feelings and sadness if they liked.
- Small groups were formed to discuss their hopes (expectations) for and concerns about the retreat. This was a further opportunity for them to indicate their readiness to discuss their own traumatic experiences in the tsunami.
- Two professional counselors spent time with the participants, especially talking about how to help children who are dealing with trauma. These activities, although designed for children, were also an excellent help in guiding participants into an inward journey through their own experiences.
- One day was devoted to creative activities with batik painting, woodblock printing and silkscreen printing. Through these exercises participants could use different art forms in order to share their feelings with the broad group.
- Much time was spent in small group discussions working a various issues. In these small groups, participants could feel freer to share their sadness and/or anger in a less vulnerable setting. The issues raised in these small groups could then be shared with the larger group for further reflection.
- Free time in the evenings provided space for brief cultural presentations from each country. This included dancing and singing which helped the group feel more at ease with each other and enable more open sharing.
-It should be noted that a lot of the important sharing was done informally when people sat together for meals, went for walks, etc. Very often an important part of healing is simply the opportunity to tell your story and be heard empathetically.

III. Retreat Schedule

Day 1

During the morning sessions, the participants introduced themselves by illustrating their answers to four questions:
1) What is the happiest time in your life?
2) What do you like to do on your free time?
3) What is your best skill? And,
4) What is your vision for the future?

Following the introductions, the participants were divided into four groups and asked to discuss among themselves what their expectations for the retreat were. These expectations were written on large sheets of papers and attached to the walls.

In the afternoon Andrew, a counselor with expertise in working with traumatized children (many affected by sexual abuse) took the group through a three-step process. The first step consisted of relaxation exercises and included acupressure points that can be massaged in order to relax the body and ease tension.

The second step was an inward journey where participants were asked to find a quiet comfortable place where they could spend some time sensing their inner feelings. After a time, all were told to put something on paper which would express what they discovered during their inner journey. Small groups got together to share with each other and then try to express the feelings of the group on a large sheet of paper which was then shared with the large group.

The third step was an outward journey – seeking the way to move forward and serve the community. This, again, was done by quietly meditating on the work to be done and seeking the inner strength to do it.

In the evening, the group met informally for snacks, singing and sharing stories.

Day 2

This day was devoted to creative arts led by six members of the Yayasan Kesenian Perak (Perak Arts Foundation) led by Ms. Nur Hanim Khairuddin. These six professional artists provided the materials for participants to experiment with three different forms of self-expression –
1) silk screening,
2) batik painting, and
3) lino/wood printing. Although participants were encouraged to choose one art activity, most were determined to learn and utilize all three forms.

It was a bit difficult to break the participants away from their art activities, but at 5 pm the group met with Ms Lisa Sum, a professional counselor in Kuala Lumpur. Lisa uses a style of counseling called “sand tray”. The counselor and the person(s) coming from counseling sit on either side of a tray of sand. Initially they may play with the sand, create something with it, or just run their hands through it. Then she asks them to go to a table filled with small items representing people, animals, household goods, etc. They are to select something that they feel represents their feelings. These they place at some location in the sand tray and Lisa, using questions and observation, urges them to begin talking about their issues, feelings, angers, etc. Through these exercises, it is possible to help people identify the causes of their feelings and begin to deal constructively with them. Lisa led the group through several exercises using this technique. It was a supportive way to help participants begin talking about their experiences, but also provided them with another tool they can use when they return to their work.

In the evening, the Acehenese friends provided a cultural evening with Acehenese dance and music.

Day 3

During the night, the six resource persons from the Perak Arts Foundation had been preparing all of the art work produced by the participants the day before. In the morning we all gathered to pick up our work and share it with the group. Some of the reflections are in the notes attached to this report.

After tea the group once again met with Lisa Sum. She continued to encourage the participants to use the counseling techniques in their areas of work and offered them any support they might need as they helped people work through their trauma.

The afternoon was devoted to an outing in Kuala Lumpur, providing the participants with an opportunity to see some of the important sites of the city and also do a bit of shopping. Unfortunately, part of the city visit was marred by heavy rains, but it still proved to be a relaxing and community-building time for all.

Day 4

Most of the day was spent in small groups to discuss four focused topics:
1) The affect of foreign aid on tsunami victims and the rehabilitation process,
2) Government policy on rehabilitation and rebuilding,
3) Environmental issues arising from the tsunami, and
4) Community issues which need to be addressed. Groups were encouraged to look at these questions with a gender focus, identifying not only the broad aspects, but also how they specifically affect women and children. A summary of the discussions is found in the attached notes.

In the evening, the group gathered for informal sharing and singing with a special “Wrist Tying” ceremony organized by the Thai participants.

Day 5

This final day was devoted to discussing the question, where do we go from here. Again small groups discussed this question and then shared back to the larger group. A summary of these discussions is attached with the notes.

For the closing ceremony, the participants formed a circle and held hands. Each one offered a word or short sentence expressing what she or he gained from the time together. A song using the work peace in all our languages was sung as a commitment to go back to the communities and continue the work of building communities of justice and peace.

In the evening, the women met for a special time of sharing their concerns, activities and dreams.

IV. Participants

Aceh – six women and five men
Thailand - three women
Malaysia - five women and three men

V. Outcomes

Sharing by the participants tended to cover three topics:

1. Experiences during and after the tsunami.
2. Militarization in Aceh.
3. Situation of women under fundamentalist Islam.

It was clear that some of the participants needed time away from their place of work and an opportunity to make the inward journey which Andrew talked about. However, time was too short and the need for translation may have made this process more difficult.

Participants learned a variety of skills that they can use for their own renewal and growth as well as benefit their work with the people. These include several very good counseling skills, and a variety of art and craft skills which will be very beneficial to help tsunami victims deal with trauma and also can help people gain some economic benefits.

In relation to the objectives of the retreat, the outcomes were:

• To provide activists directly affected by the December tsunami with a supportive atmosphere in which they can share their experiences, their pain and their hopes.

Participants expressed appreciation for the time of reflection and sharing. Within a short period of time they established a good and open community. The sessions with counselors and the art workshop were very successful and through them good sharing began to take place. However, more time was needed.

• To support these activists as they renew their energy and spirits for the continuation of their work among communities damaged by the tsunami.

More time was needed to think about future plans for work. Much of the planning for the continuation of work was too general. Perhaps more focused questions and well-prepared small-group facilitators would have helped move closer to this objective. At the same time, there were good efforts among the participants to support each other and to continue sharing information on their work in the future.

• To find ways to encourage the activists in the long-term work of building interfaith communities of justpeace.

There was a good exchange between the Buddhist and Muslim participants. The Muslim friends talked quite openly about the problems they are facing as fundamentalist Muslims from other parts of Indonesia take the opportunity to enter Aceh and agitate. ICF must make a serious attempt to continue dialogue with these Acehenese friends. One or two will be invited to attend the next ICF committee meeting in Indonesia this August and, if possible, an exchange visit should be made to strengthen the link with them and also to assure them that there is concern and support for their efforts.

• To strengthen and expand the interfaith network in Asia, and to encourage interfaith cooperation in building communities of justpeace

Good contacts were made with the Acehenese Muslim friends and ICF will need to build on this. Perhaps some of these friends can be invited to the Interfaith School for Peace which will begin next year. Also they can be encouraged to become active in the Asian Interfaith Day, and perhaps participate in some exchange visits with other areas like Sri Lanka or Thailand.

VI. Recommendations

-This kind of service to the activists who are frontline care givers is crucial. A program to provide systematic, professional and consistent help to them when needed is essential. While the ICF is not in a position to initiate an on-going program of this nature, but we can encourage other groups working specifically on tsunami issues, to consider making this a part of their program.
- ICF will continue to build on the relationships with the Acehenese and Malaysian participants by bringing them into various ICF activities and by sharing information with them.
- A small ICF delegation visit to Aceh should be arranged in the near future with some of these Acehenese friends hosting. Through this visit we can learn more about their situation and also strengthen our ties with them so that we can more effectively respond to the religious issues in their area.