The Rev. Frederick Streets, the Yale University chaplain, sits before a wooden table, brow furrowed, lips slightly parted, pondering why God allows human suffering.
“I have faith in God that what’s broken can in some way be mended,” Streets says in a soft voice.
Streets traveled to Bosnia-Herzegovina last September to help those traumatized by the Bosnian war reconcile their former lives to the trauma of mass violence.
As a member of the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma, he helped train mental health professionals, clergy members and social service officials and also worked directly with those affected by the war in Bosnian cities including Sarajevo, Tuzla and Mostar.
He added that Bosnia is “a place redefining itself. There are a lot of displaced people.”
U.N. documents indicate that more than 2.2 million people were forced to flee their homes and that 200,000 died in the ethnic battle between Serbs, Croats and Muslims in the region.
Streets says a unique facet of the problem in Bosnia is that often the “treaters are also the traumatized.”
He mentioned a surgeon he knew who would save lives at night and in the morning pick up his rifle as a soldier. The doctor told Streets that the dilemma weighed heavily on him at night, where he might treat a soldier whom he himself had shot.
Before his first visit to the region in 1999, Streets said he was apprehensive about traveling to the area because he was African-American and Christian. His fears evaporated when he arrived.
“This part of the Muslim world is very modern and reflects western, not eastern, Europe.”
Rather, Streets found that his experience in the black community actually helped to prepare him for his work in Bosnia. The suffering of minority groups — from violence, racism — parallels the suffering of individuals affected by war, he added.
“I found a capacity to sense the kind of suffering inflicted on people because of minority status, both ethnically and religiously,” he said. “I was working with trauma before I realized it.”
He immediately qualified his remark.
“I’m not saying that all suffering is the same,” he said, “I’m saying trauma is universal.”
Streets is trying to alter the current approach to treating trauma victims.
He told of a woman he had encountered who complained to a doctor of headaches. After medical tests returned to him negative, the doctor was at a loss to help the woman.
Streets said her physical symptoms stemmed from psychological, spiritual and emotional problems, not from a physical abnormality. The woman told Streets that she and her daughters had been raped, and the last time she saw her son, he was being led away by armed guards.
“Emotional trauma can lead to physiological effects,” he said. “We need to treat the whole human being.”
He received a master of divinity degree from Yale and master’s and doctoral degrees from the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at New York’s Yeshiva University. He has been the Yale chaplain since 1992.
Streets hopes to “redefine the culture of care” by training doctors to search for possible psychological causes of medical illness, listening to stories
Streets said he doesn’t think people should try to forget their traumatic experiences, but rather create a “new narrative,” synthesizing their former life and the experience of war into a new philosophy. He said work, altruism and spirituality are crucial in creating the new narrative.
Asked how resilient people are to traumatic events, Street said, “People are very resilient — particularly children, youth.” He then told the story of a group of students who had fled their homes. When they returned to the empty desks of their former classmates, they neither expressed contempt for those who had survived nor fostered feelings of guilt. Rather, Streets said, they embraced each other.
“It’s a form of resilience for people to find the capacity to embrace each other without assigning an ‘us-you’ dichotomy.”
He said he hopes to cultivate interest in international humanitarian work at Yale and asked that students interested come to speak with him.
“Part of the way I see the mission of the chaplain’s office is to use my talents to the benefit of the Yale community.”
He intends to use his experience in Bosnia to “help students explore and appreciate [their] particular identities as well as [their] global identities.”
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