Heart of Treasure Valley

Heart of the Treasure Valley: Immigration attorney works in Africa — and Boise — to help heal victims of violence

When it was her turn to share, a young woman rose amid a group of people seated in a circle of chairs. Her father had been killed, she said, and what really haunted her was that she never knew who killed him. Her sorrow hung in the silence that followed.

Kathy Railsback says: “We all sit there and honor the people who are lost. ... It’s like a sacred time.”

A man stood up next. He had recently been released from prison, he said, and he spoke to the young woman: I was with the group that killed your father. And, he continued, I am asking for your forgiveness.

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Kathy Railsback is an immigration attorney in Boise. Two and a half years ago, she attended a presentation by Theoneste Bizimana at Boise State University; he had been doing trauma-healing work in Rwanda. In workshops of about 20 people — 10 victims of violence and 10 perpetrators of violence — they would spend three days talking (and playing) together.

Kathy says: “Frontline peace work, I would call it. ...

“People were dealing with their own trauma, both perpetrators and victims, and they were able to see how the others had suffered equally or more than they — and in some of the same ways. So victims were able to see perpetrators had suffered and vice versa. ...

“What I like about this program is it encourages people to hold some of this stuff up to the light of day. And that’s the first step toward healing. ... Or in reconciliation and any kind of peace work. Or just healing, first of all.”

Inspired by Bizimana’s presentation, Kathy went to Africa for more training. She has been there four times, each time getting more experience as a facilitator. She has helped with a dozen workshops in Rwanda and helped establish workshops in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

At home in Boise, she’s also held workshops for the refugee community, working with people from the DRC, Burundi, and planning one with the Ethiopian/Eritrea communities. She would love to work with other groups, including veterans, for the principles are pretty universal.

“You just never know what people are suffering until you start to talk about it.”

The program, called “Healing and Rebuilding our Communities,” was developed in Rwanda, where victims and perpetrators of the 1994 genocide still live side-by-side.

“One of the victims stood up and was addressing a perpetrator and said, ‘We are ready to forgive you. We are tired of walking down the street and seeing you hide in the bushes ... ’

“The victims ... want to let go of this anger and sadness and move on.

“The perpetrators also want to move on; (they are tired of living in fear for their lives); they want to live with the people and, in some cases, make amends. They might be supporting a widow or helping a widow with farm work because she needs help, she doesn’t have a husband.”

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In her college years, Kathy volunteered at a refugee camp in Thailand, where she worked with people fleeing the Vietnam war — Laotians, Vietnamese, Cambodians.

“Working with people who have lived through wars, that stemmed my interest in peacemaking, in doing what we can do ... so there are no more refugees.

“I realized that this healing work can help victims and perpetrators recover from the effects of war. And, also, it can help prevent war, because some of the symptoms of trauma — like anger, mistrust, suspicion, fear — are some of the same things that lead to cycles of violence.”

In June 2014, just as a workshop in South Kivu province in Congo was finishing, 38 people were killed in a village about 12 miles away. A pastor in the village had attended a previous workshop because, years before, his wife and young daughter had been raped and died as a result. Kathy visited him about a week after the massacre.

“I asked him if (the families) were talking about taking revenge. He said yes. But he had counseled against it. ...

“That was so powerful to me. ... Anything I can do to help this guy heal from these horrendous things he’s been through, and strengthen him so he can be a voice for saneness. I couldn’t go to a meeting and say, ‘Don’t take revenge.’ I don’t have the moral authority to say that.

“But he does. ... I see it as a long-term peacemaking endeavor, starting at an individual scale.”

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One young woman in South Kivu thought the only way to get rid of anger after someone killed one of her loved ones was to kill in return.

“So then everybody had a discussion about it: Is that true? Is that not true? I’m just a facilitator. ... She finally came to the conclusion: OK, maybe if you just beat them.

“(But) that’s progress. The fact that she’s thinking about it and questioning — what do you do with this anger?

“That’s a real issue, you know. One, recognizing that you’re carrying the anger ... that’s beneficial in and of itself. That sometimes is the biggest accomplishment. ... You have to recognize it before you can do anything about it.

“That’s kind of the first step. Then seeing that other people have it; also, that it’s kind of normal after surviving something like that. That’s another huge step. And then realizing that it can actually help you deal with it by talking about it with somebody that you trust. ...

“Like anybody who’s experienced a terrible thing, you’re afraid to bring it back up again and hold up to the light of day, but it really seems to help people.”

In another group, an elderly woman stood up. She looked haunted, Kathy remembers, lonely and severe.

“When the time came for sharing, she ... just let loose. ... She went all the way back to the ‘60s, talking about the death of her father, the death of her siblings, the death of her children. She just kind of went through everything. ...

“It’s like, ‘Here’s what I’ve been carrying for the last 50 years.’

“You can honestly see a difference in people afterwards. A physical difference, like (she had been really weighed down). ... By the end, she was relaxed and able to smile and laugh.”

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On Kathy’s first trip to Congo, one of the African workshop leaders was detained by a group of guerrilla extremists. It turns out that their commander had seen that his soldiers were traumatized and wanted a workshop for them.

“If you looked at some ... extremists, what you would probably find is many young men who, in one way or the other, have been traumatized — either personally or their families. At least part of their actions are a result of the trauma they’d suffered. I believe that.

“And, in many cases, going back generations. There is such a thing as historical trauma. ... That’s the negative side. On the positive side, I think it’s never too late. Like the woman who could stand up after 50 years and say, ‘Here’s what I’ve gone through.’ ...

“I still think it’s better late than never, to honestly say, ‘Look at what was done,’ hold it up to the light of the day see what the consequences were. And how you can make amends.

“I think it gets harder, the longer you wait. But I still think it’s possible.”

When Kathy talks about the effects of trauma, she draws three circles inside each other. The smallest, at the center, represents an individual. The second is the family; the larger one, the community.

“When the individual is traumatized, they might be depressed, they might get into substance abuse, they might be angry all the time — all those are symptoms of trauma. ...

“If kids grew up with mom or dad going through the symptoms, they’re going to be affected in some way. ...

“That kid is going to be in a classroom ... so it’s going to affect education (as well as) health care, either the person or the family; somebody’s going to need more health care. And the criminal justice system — the kid may get in a gang, or the parents, or there may be domestic violence — so it’s going to affect community.”

She points to the concentric circles again.

“The idea is that if you can help heal that individual ... that person is going to have a beneficial effect on the family. ... A more solid family is going to strengthen the community. It works in the reverse.

“That was the light bulb moment for me: If you can get to the individual and work on that level, that’s what makes the biggest difference.”

There is a man that Kathy remembers; he sticks out in her mind for the intense way he sat in his chair, every muscle frozen and intense and on edge.

“His eyes were locked on me; he just sat there staring at me. He was afraid.

“What I learned is that some people live in such fear of revenge — that the relatives of the people they killed are going to come kill them. ... It’s like they’re haunted. They’re having nightmares ... having these terrible flashbacks.

“But he made such an impression on me because, by the end of it, I could see a physical difference in him. He had actually relaxed. ...

“We’ll just start one at a time. I’m at peace with that.”

Know someone living “from the heart”? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman.com.

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