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Community Music Therapy with Traumatised Refugees and Torture victims in Berlin



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

From Community Music Therapy – edited by Mercedes Pavlicevic and Gary Ansdell

Promoting Integration and Socio-cultural Change:  Community Music Therapy with Traumatised Refugees in Berlin - Oksana Zharinova- Sanderson

For over three years I have been working at the Treatment Centre for Torture Victims in Berlin, establishing a music therapy service there in a project organised by the University of Witten-Herdecke and sponsored by the German Nordoff-Robbins Charity. The work with this clientele has strengthened my belief in music as a valid therapeutic medium across cultures.

A big church in former West Berlin. In the middle of its vast space, under the dome, a circle of 70-80 people are chanting a simple melody together, clapping and stamping and using the rhythm to send musical questions and answers to each other. On one side are the men, their voices strong and loud, united in the feeling of their masculine solidarity, on the other – the women - their voices softer and less confident, but beautiful in their feminine tones.

I am standing in the middle of this circle, feeling overwhelmed by the energy in their music whilst trying to conduct and help the people to sustain and develop what they are doing. The people around me are traumatised refugees from all over the world, who have come to this Berlin church to a patients' party organised by the centre where they receive treatment, and where I work as a music therapist. Most of them speak limited German and do not understand each other's languages.

Before we formed the circle they had looked like a dispersed gathering of unconnected individuals, each person sitting with his or her family, not talking to the people from the other ethnic groups, each in their own little space. But in this circle they become part of the energy, united into a community. I can see the recognition of this energy in their eyes. As the music stops, I observe their faces still lit up, waiting for the music to start again...

Institutional context and the context of trauma

Behandlungszentrum fur Folteropfer (The Centre for the Treatment of Torture Victims) in Berlin is one of the most well-known organisations in Germany in this field. It is also one of the few such institutions where a full-time music therapist is engaged. Music therapy was introduced to provide a non-verbal therapy to complement the verbal therapies that rely on the help of an interpreter and to provide the patients with a direct unfiltered way of communication.

At the start of my work it was felt that the idea of music therapy was quite foreign to the well-established culture of this institution. Many of my colleagues in the therapy team felt that what music therapy was offering missed the main issue of the work - the trauma itself. Thus I had to discover and establish the place of music therapy in the treatment model of the institution and to share with my colleagues what benefit music therapy could have for these patients. My explorations were informed by the argument in the literature about trauma that suggested that trauma work alone is not sufficient in rehabilitating traumatised people.


The patients' who come to music therapy range greatly in age, culture, nationality, education and degree of traumatisation. All of them are either survivors of torture and/ or political persecution or traumatic events during wars. I came across people from a huge variety of backgrounds - from a Kurdish political activist to an African woman who lost her husband and children, from a bank manager from Chechnya to a Kosovo orphan. It may seem surprising that torture and traumatic experiences are generally not their biggest concern. Instead, their insecure residential status and unhappy life in exile without money, freedom of movement and employment, and fear of East German neo-Nazis - these are the most burning issues that are shared by every patient.

Because of their refugee status there is very little help available for them in the German health and social services, so they flood into our privately run centre for all the help that they can get. Underneath these issues from their present daily life in Berlin lies the suffering caused by the symptoms of PTSD, such as acute insomnia, nightmares, extreme psychosomatic pains, phobias and communication problems (van der Kolk 1996; Hermann 1992).


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