Playing Through Bombs: Chitra Sekhar, Retired International Child Therapist, Recalls Her Life in Crises

Interview of Kerry McElroy’s Interview Series “A Light in the Mineshaft: An Interview Series With Society’s Traumaworkers”


Chitra Sekhar is an Ottawa-based child psychotherapist and play therapist. Her work with young children has spanned over four decades and several countries. She started her career as a researcher and Professor in child development in South India. Her research focused on the impact of malnutrition on the growth and development of children, and her field work with students was done primarily on special needs children. After moving to Canada, she completed a graduate degree in educational counseling, with further specialized training in child psychotherapy and play therapy. She worked as a children’s counselor with several community agencies in Ottawa. Sekhar has created and delivered several play-based training programs for frontline workers in several countries in chronic conflict and post-disaster contexts. She had authored several training manuals on the use of play and other creative artforms in child psychotherapy. Such programs have now been offered in Canada to help refugee children arriving in Canada from conflict zones. Sekhar is also passionate about the rights of children and has taught several courses on global issues and their impact on them in multiple departments at Carleton University. She continues to live in Ottawa post retirement, where she pursues her interests as an amateur multimedia artist.

Kerry McElroy is a Contributing Editor to Narrative Paths Journal. She is a feminist cultural historian and writer holding a doctorate in Humanities from Concordia University, Montréal. Her thesis entitled Class Acts: A Socio-Cultural History of Women, Labour, and Migration in Hollywood, focused on women in performance systems. She has published articles on cinema, women, history, culture, and politics in Irish AmericaThe Independent, and Montréal Serai, among other magazines. She holds master’s degrees from Columbia and Carnegie Mellon Universities.

KLM: So in today’s interview, I’m speaking with Chitra Sekhar, a practitioner who has worked around the world with– well, I think from there, maybe I will let you take it over. Why don’t we start with your own biography in this case? Because I think some of the people I work with in these interviews, it’s very cut and dry. You know: this is a scientist who works in genetics, and so on. But I feel like you’ve had a bit of a varied career and you’ve worked with different groups in different countries. So how would you define yourself? Let’s start there.

CS: That’s a problem I have, too! How do I define myself? The one common factor in all things I do is children. Working with children, in various capacities as a child development worker. That’s how I started in my journey, as an undergraduate and then graduate student. And then I specialized in child development, research in child development. And then as actual community worker, field worker, as part of the research. And as a teacher in the university in the southern part of India, teaching child development and training students and taking them for fieldwork.

In India, when I was teaching, it was very theory-oriented. You just sit in the class, for hours on end, and listen to the prof. But I wanted to make it different. Like, you want to learn about childhood– let’s go where the children are. They are not just in the books, they are there. And especially in India, you have children who are– they were roaming around the street, and then doing some kind of petty thieving, and stuff like that. And so these students, they needed to learn about our children– who were, some, so malnourished they could hardly move. And then the plight of the parents. And so I felt that there should be a practical component to that. So, I started involving the students also in the fieldwork, and then I did my counseling training while I was teaching. And had the opportunity to do my internship in one of the biggest hospitals in southern India.

And again, I gravitated towards working with children. So, children who had had traumatic injuries, like who had injuries in the spinal column and then became bedridden. And children whose parents had leprosy. Children who the plight of the parents… children who had very serious illness and who were in the hospital. And so all these kind of things, without me really trying, they were just moving me towards one direction.

Then I got married and moved to Canada, because my husband had already been working here. And I stayed home with my children to watch them grow, which was very, very precious for me.

And then I went back to do my second master’s at Ottawa U., in educational counseling. I tried counseling adults. But my heart was not in there. So I was doing a project for the YMCA, YWCA. I kind of told them that I want to work with children, and they were kind enough to include me, and then enrolled me in a Family Services children’s program. They also encouraged me to get my training in play therapy.

 So the next avatar was being a play therapist, working with children. And it worked fine with me because I love playing, I love creating stuff. Even back home in India, I used to work with very young children. My research was on children between the ages of two and up to five who were affected by malnutrition, and how it affects their mental abilities. That was the topic that I was dealing with. And so I always wanted to work with very young children.

And so at the Y, I could create a program for young children between the ages of four to seven who had witnessed domestic violence and women abuse. I started providing groups as well as individual counselling, which helped me with my play therapy training as well.

And they had an international wing as well. So they invited me to participate on behalf of Canadian YMCAs in a conflict resolution workshop in Ireland, in Belfast in ‘96, which was a really difficult time in Northern Ireland. That was my first exposure to actually being in a place which had conflict.

And there it was, I found out– there are so many people from different countries all talking about adults in conflict. Nobody was focusing on children in conflict. And when children are in conflict, then it affects the entire family.

And I was talking about my experiences with children here in Ottawa, and using play. And that resonated with some of the participants, especially those who came from places like Colombia, which had a really difficult time– Central America, South America, Honduras, and then, Guatemala, El Salvador. And then Sri Lanka, of course. And Northern Ireland, of course. And that really stuck with them, the YMCA, and they started thinking about: here is this area we have not explored at all. And here is a person who at that time was working for the Y. Maybe we could use her expertise. And then also, Sri Lankan authorities who did not have the resources, but desperately wanted me to work with children facing civil strife and conflict in Jaffna and surrounding areas.  

I had my children– my daughters were very young at that time, and I was not ready to go all over the place. Plus, I was very interested in the work I was doing in Ottawa with the young children.

But eventually the Sri Lankan representatives were quite persistent, because they really felt that there is a match. Because the north and the eastern part of Sri Lanka, where the war was intense, they were Tamil-speaking population. And I speak Tamil, I’m from India. So they felt that culturally, linguistically, there is a match. And eventually, after much hesitation, I agreed.

But then I said that I’m not going anywhere just by reading the newspaper, that this is what is happening in Sri Lanka, unless I hear from the children. They were very hesitant because in the time, they could not guarantee my safety. Just getting me there in and out one time was what they were aiming for. But here I am pushing for one more time because I said I had to make a trip just to actually see the children, and to have interaction with them. You can call it assessment. I call it just talking to them, playing with them. And only then I can design a program which would suit Sri Lankan children. I cannot do it from… though I am from the same similar culture, and I’m familiar with all those things, it is only hearsay. And I need to hear directly. And after much, much hesitation, they let me go.

And when I went there, the parents– I can understand them. They were concerned about children disclosing issues. And then I had to tell them, to gain their trust– say that I’m just going to give them paper and crayons. I always brought my sketchbook and crayons. I always traveled with that.

And I said, I’m just going to ask them to draw something. And they would like the kids to draw a bird or a peacock and a lotus flower. I said: no, no, no. You don’t tell them. So after the parents left, the children– they said: okay, I can draw anything? Yes, you can draw anything. And then they started. First it started, with the lotus flower and the coconut tree.

And then. After ten minutes, it changed. The kind of pictures they were drawing, like people getting shot, people getting killed, and people being pulled– really very difficult to look at. But then again, I didn’t ask them: what exactly is in the picture? No. Because I don’t want to start a counseling process and I’m just going to pack a bag and leave the next week.

But they started coming and sitting on my lap. A very young one said: I want to tell you about the picture. This is what happened in my family. And then you see that the whole room full of children, one by one, they will hold out their picture and tell me what was happening. And at one point– they were crying. And, you know, I just started crying too. And then I suddenly realized: oh, my God, what am I doing? A whole room full of children crying. And I’m going to leave soon.

So fortunately for me, I suddenly saw the camera. One of the children saw the camera beside me, and she said: you have a camera. Are you going to take a picture of us? I said: if you want to, and if your parents are okay with that. But then immediately the kid took over the whole room and she said: oh, Chitra Auntie is going to take a picture. So let’s dry our tears, comb our hair, bring the flowers. This is the spontaneity of children, right? Immediately they changed.

So– oh my God, these children also are telling me what they need. They don’t want to be just hung up on this. They want to get out of it. They want a way to do that.

And so after coming home, I consulted with some of the Sri Lankans. There were a lot of them coming to Toronto at that time, and they had interviews with me. I went to Toronto again from Ottawa, to talk to them. I developed a program that was culturally appropriate. Though Tamil cultures are somewhat the same, Sri Lankan culture is different.

Eventually I went to Sri Lanka. And then a lot of problems with getting the army security certificate to let me go in and do the work. And it was difficult. The last words the children told me during my first trip– I said, I’ll come back. And they said: don’t say that because you are not going to come back. People all the time come and ask us. They ask us whether we have bad dreams, and whether we– are we sad, are we anxious? But then we tell them everything, but they don’t come back.

And the adults were saying the same thing, too. No picture will be complete when you’re working with children unless you connect with the parents, too. And the parents also felt that, no, you will not. Why would you come— you live in Canada, and then come here to Sri Lanka? And because I’m a Tamil person also, they were worried about my safety too, in Sri Lanka at the time. So I was very hesitant. The first time I went, I saw actually the situation. You know, people may not attack you intentionally, but you get caught up in the whole chaos.

Anyway, the words of the children resonated with me. You are not going to come back. You are like everybody else. And just to prove that, no, I am not. I am serious about what I mean.

And I went back. And then stayed for a month or so in the middle, up in the eastern part of Sri Lanka, which was… both the rebels were there and the army was there, whereas in the north it’s mostly the rebels. And so it was in the middle of both the parties. Like even the place I was staying, I was staying with a Methodist minister. And then, you know, one side was the rebel headquarters. A troubled situation. I’m going there. And then the other side was the army, and the place I was staying was in between. So you can see this constant flow of exchange of fire, and stuff like that.

But– the amount of satisfaction I got. Actually what happened was, they collected the youth and very young persons from the villages affected by the conflict. My idea was to give them the tools to deal with– these children– when there is an attack happening or something really bad happening in the community. And so immediately being able to give them some wall to draw on and then, you know, give them some clay, these are all locally available. Give them some clay, they like the feel of it. Let them sing some songs, and so let them create some stories. So these are the tools I gave to the trainees. And then they would actually do that work.

First, I would play with the children and do the things, like we had set topics to do. And then, I start with: who are you? And then about the child– you don’t have to give your name, give me a pretend name, or the flower you like, and draw the picture. And then slowly go to the family because it is like a minefield. Many of them had lost their families. To talk about it, even to open the topic like I had.

I had one incident when we were– after talking about the family and the community, we were actually talking about doing goodbye ceremonies. Because many of them did not have opportunity to say goodbye. And so we created some flowers. We brought— in Sri Lanka, I was lucky enough, we’d get a lot of fresh flowers– and there is always water there. And we would float flowers in the water. And for each flower, they would remember one person they have lost. And it was so powerful because we ran out of flowers. Trainees were just running around getting more and more flowers. Each child, a child who is seven or eight, would just keep putting fifteen flowers, sixteen flowers. And before I realized, I said: how is it that we are running out of flowers?

It was actually that the trainees were doing it too, because they had not had the time to do that or opportunities to do that. When you are talking and training these people, then you need to see that they are able to process their own grief. They cannot learn theoretically. Actually do it.

And the first day of the training there were some mid-management people there too. And I said that morning I’ll talk about the work I do, and afternoon you are actually going to do, too– draw and then play with clay and play with sand. And they were flabbergasted. Like, you are coming from North America. We thought you will talk about counseling.

My point is to create a group of people who are there and don’t have to come from outside. They were very hesitant. And I said: it is up to you whether you play or not. I’m going to play because I need that, being here. And so they joined me. And then after four days, this gentleman, who was one who was very against it before, wanting training. He came to me and said: yeah, I want to play. Can we play? Have more playtime? We never had it. We forgot to play. We really forgot to play.

Okay, so that program went very well. But in the last day we had to stop it abruptly because there was a bombing very close. The trainees were all from the Tamil areas. They were worried about the army, so they all just left helter-skelter. So there was no closure. And of course my family was so worried about us, too. What happened to me? These are all times before the internet. So it was a very, very anxious period.

But the way it works even now is that– when there is utter chaos and so many things like this happening, that is when I’m at my calmest. I come back to Canada where it is always calm, then I get very restless. But when I go to places like that, I’m very calm. I’m just very focused and I’m not afraid. There may be shooting outside, may be shelling there and killing there, but it doesn’t matter. Like, I’m here. And that ability, I think, helped me all through.

Eventually when I settled down to do my private practice, it was always like that. When I’m doing the session, it’s just me and the child. We are the ones who are interacting. We are doing. When I play, I just completely lose myself. And so, the children realize– that here is a person who is listening to me, actually listening to me, is engaged and involved. And so that helped me a lot.

By that time, in Canada, the Ministry of Citizenship or Health Canada, they came up with some money. They heard about the Y program that I did in Sri Lanka, and they wanted to replicate that in Canada, with the refugee children who come from war-affected countries. And so they provided us the money, and the YWCA Canada took over, and so I created the program.

And then there were manuals created by my play therapy supervisor, based on the programs that I had done. I had created the program with modifications and then, went around six or seven cities, and in Ottawa, ran one-week training for frontline workers. Social workers, teachers, doctors, and psychologists. Again experiential-based, the same kind of a program.

And that was the stage I decided to leave the Y because I was getting more involved with international work. And also I started teaching at Carleton on a part time basis, and I was also doing a few hours of work with the Family Services Canada, Ottawa Family Services. A few hours a week because I really missed my individual counseling work with the children. And I also created some program for children whose mothers had addiction problems when I was at the Y. And also another refugee program for community based programs.

By 2000, I also got my certification as a play therapist, and child psychotherapist through the Canadian Play Therapy Association. I did the research on play forms, culturally-based play forms in a selected community in India. This is how I started my work in India. I never did any actual work in India before that, because India has a lot of conflicts, but they’re not defined as a war kind of situation.

And then the [2004] tsunami happened. I went a couple of times after the tsunami for the Canadian Red Cross. And that was actually my last of the international programs. I did go again to get trained by UNICEF for child protection. Then I had started my individual practice, counseling practice as a play therapy practice as well, which I continued till 2019 when I at last retired.

It was all about child rights and human rights. How do we create programs which are community-based? Essentially, I’m a programmer.

KLM: True– but this is not just a career that’s on one track. I’d like you to elaborate a little bit, if you would, as to when you’re working in these difficult situations. You already mentioned that you have a sort of, I would call it, a gift. Of not feeling afraid, and being able to focus on the work. But are there times when you found the work– either from the stories of the children, or seeing them being quite traumatized, physically traumatized, emotionally traumatized– are there times when it would weigh on you?

I know that you said that one of the aspects of play therapy is picking up on how children don’t want to experience “I am traumatized” all the time. They want to play. They want to be children. So you’re engaging in that dynamic with them. But there must still have been times when this work was heavy, or could get depressing or could get you down. How do you deal with the heaviness of it? If you’re not feeling afraid, that’s wonderful. But are you at times feeling the pain of the stories you’re hearing or the things you’re seeing? How do you deal with that? Did you deal with that?

CS: Fortunately for me, I’m one of those people who doesn’t seem to internalize it. I am there.

You know, there still have been times which I had been shocked. When I was in a youth group, the first time I went to Sri Lanka and I was talking to them about what’s going on. And then I told them also: I’ll come back next time. And one of them said what the other children had said: you won’t come back because it is too dangerous. Everybody says that. And then nobody comes back.

But this youth, he looked at me and he said: well, you may come back, but I may not be here. Because that was the reality. This young man who talked to me, he had already lost one of his legs. Because the army truck ran over his legs, and he lost his leg. And it was playing on me again and again. I was like: you know, it is very true. I’m talking about myself, whether I am coming back or not. And here is a young man saying it’s not about that. It’s not about me not being there. That it was his reality kind of situation.

And after coming back, I was in a meeting at the Y and I happened to see the newspaper. And it said that a group of youth from the place where I went to had perished, in a conflict situation. And I don’t know what happened. I just dropped everything and said: Oh my God, oh my God, and I ran out of the room. Which is very unlike me, I’m usually quite a reserved person. And my manager was running behind me and she said: What happened? What happened? And I couldn’t control my crying. I said: he told me. Who told you what? One of the boys. He told me that he may not be there anymore. Maybe it was him!

Then I had my wonderful friend who used to be in my counseling group. She was there behind me all the time, so she could help me through the process. So I had that kind of help. And Paul Hogan, who is a visual artist, he tried to engage me in actually drawing and painting. So working for the Y I could continue to physically work.

And underneath all these things, Kerry, I think that there is also this strong belief that– I’m doing the right kind of work, so I will be protected.

After the tsunami, when I went, I landed in Colombo and then I had to go to the east. And I was traveling in the middle of the night. There was just me and the guy who was driving. I didn’t know him. And it was 2:00am, and there was an army checkpoint coming. And I was quite thinking: what am I doing here? In the middle of the night? Nobody knows where I am, there’s no cell phone, nothing. For the first time, I’m thinking: how stupid is that?

Again, I want to say that I was not afraid. Just once. I was walking and just turned the corner, and saw just right in front of me the army barracks. And they are always on the lookout with their guns. And then he was darkly looking at me, and then I was looking at him. And then I don’t know why, after the first moment I was not afraid. I was shocked.

Another time we were travelling from the east to Colombo. They made us– they stopped our van halfway through, and they said that there was an army guy who had to go to Colombo. So take him in your van. It’s a very awkward situation. Because there was also one of the trainees who had to go to Colombo who had been so traumatized, and she was from the north. And then there is this soldier, and he has got his gun and everything. And he was sitting, so everybody else in the van was totally silent.

And then after about fifteen minutes or so I thought, okay: I might as well ask this guy, talk to him. Eventually I found out that he is a young man who has two young children. And he was going all the way from the east to Colombo just for one day. I said: why would you do that? Why don’t you wait for some holidays? This is a North American thing. Why don’t you wait for a holiday and then go? He said: What holiday? And he said: every day is precious. This time I see my kids. I don’t know whether I will again.

This thing keeps coming back again and again, whether it is the army person or the rebel person, or somebody who is an innocent bystander. It is the same mantra: we may not be there.

Even with the children. Like with dressing up. They teach you so many life lessons, the trainees as well as the children. They would dress up so nicely, and then come for playing in the mud. So I would say: why would you do that? Like, wait, I am in my jeans and a T-shirt, and why would you do that? They said: we don’t get occasion to go for a wedding or anything like that. This is the occasion for us. And also, it’s a little kid saying: there was a shelling beside my house yesterday, and nothing happened to me. I don’t know what’s going to happen today, so I want to wear something nice.

And so again, these moments. I was not afraid, but there was some shock, of course. Like a vicarious trauma. So, I dealt with that after I came back.

There are some cases, not only internationally, but here also sometimes. There was a mother who lost her young child in an accident, and I was counselling. She was from Sri Lanka too. And that was one of the profound experiences I had. It was one of the saddest– one of the things which affected me so much. Every day after the counselling with her, I would come home and cry, a lot. I’m a mother too, you know. And to see the grief of that mother.

I did the work because I love children, working with children. I like their spontaneity and their wisdom, actually. But at the same time, because I love the work, it also makes it very hard sometimes. And you see the pain. Like, when a child is throwing the flowers for each person they’ve lost in the water.

And the same thing with the tsunami also. So many children lost. And then one of them came to me and said: I don’t believe in God anymore, because there is no God. If it is there, then these things would not have happened.

Or, they would talk about: when I saw the people, all our people going into the water. But in the temple or in the church, they say that they’ve gone up to heaven. Where are they? When will I be able to see them?

It’s not a question of: who is going to take care of me? Because there is a community-based thing. Somebody or other would do that. But they would ask: why my brother? Why not me? Where is God? Where do I have to go?

These are so many unanswered questions, underneath all these things. And so I dealt with that, with the children.

And then it also made me feel angry, many times. Like when you see in the paper that so many children died in Iraq, and then so many people died in Syria. Behind all that forty, fifty and 100– like the residential school children, the graves we are finding now, behind the 215– there were individual children. They had their name, they had their life.

And that makes me feel very angry. It still does. You can hear that anger in me even now. I dealt with that, but it’s still there. And the helplessness.

At the same time, I’m not going to give up. No. But I also know that I’m getting old, and I can’t even run fast if I go to a very difficult situation. So, I have to pass on the message instead, and teach somebody else that, hey, there are ways and means of dealing with that. That’s where my teaching came in. Students used to like my class because it was actual experience. I’m not just quoting from something. I’m telling you actually, that there are ways. These are real children. And I’m telling you the stories of the real children, their experiences.

And when we talk about child rights and human rights, we need to figure out how it translates into real life. Whether the children are mining for diamonds, or sifting through water, looking for diamonds. Child labor issues. It’s not just children in war alone. Talk about child soldiers. Why do they become child soldiers?

One of my students commented once, after attending your class: Chitra, it’s difficult for me even to buy a piece of chocolate. Because we’re talking about children in the cocoa plantations in Burkina Faso. Or the carpet! Even the carpet you walk on. Just think about where this product is coming from.

KLM: And that’s one of the questions I have central to this project, actually. I’m glad you went in that direction, because the original title of this series, being about the people who work, so to speak, the night shift in the graveyards. That there are people in society, from all walks of life, from all countries, race, gender, age. The people I’m talking to in this project are so diverse– happily so. And they come from such different fields. But I have this sense that I’m trying to get at with this project that some of us– I would put myself in this, as well, as a feminist researcher who’s worked on sexual assault and really difficult topics. That’s how I came to this in the first place. That there are some people- whether it’s one in ten, one in 100- that are sort of compelled to ask the questions, and look at the things that most people don’t want to look at.

And so, once you know those things, you can’t unknow them. You can’t look at the chocolate the same, right? Like you, we, some of us are doing this work in in the nighttime, the sewers, if you will, the darkness– whatever metaphor you want to use. Some of us do these things so that the rest of people can kind of live a happy life in a way.

But: would you be any different? Would you want to not be the person you are? Probably not. Some of us are compelled to go to these difficult places.

Someone I’m really excited that I just got, another interviewee for next week. I really wanted to have a person who does things with animal abuse, factory farming. I’m a vegetarian and a bit of an animal activist. But this is somebody who goes undercover in factory farms and does investigations of animals being abused. So obviously, by taking on that work, you’re someone who cares very passionately about animals. And yet you’re putting yourself into this position of complete pain. You have to see things that are the last thing you would want to see. But that’s exactly why you’re compelled to do it. Paradox.

So, if you could speak a little bit to that: this idea that we, some of us, once we know things, we can’t unknow them, right? And yet we’re we’re doing it anyway. That’s where I was picking up with what you were saying about the class and the chocolate.

CS: There are two ways when you are confronted with… I’m talking about child laborers, or FGM, or child marriages. Or child prostitution in Thailand, Cambodia. Very difficult, very difficult topics.

There are two things you can do. You can say: okay, I cannot deal with this. Or, I’d run away from that. Or you can do something about it. And I’m talking about the second choice– you can do something about it.

And many of them used to ask me, how do I get involved with that? It’s not like I wanted everybody to pack up their bag and go to DR Congo. Many of them had easy backgrounds. So I’d teach– first, implement some of these things in your own life context.

I always had a topic on Indigenous children. How do we deal with this intergenerational stuff? Without judging. A child comes to me from Indigenous background. I look at the family picture: where are the grandparents from, the parents from, is the child with the parents or in a foster home. So in each context, people can do something about it. And then- if I’m able to motivate people to do that– that’s my payoff. This is what I say. That there is a purpose in me doing that work. This is the meaning of it.

Because the first option had never been– even myself, as a child—it was never an option for me to walk away. When I would see a child begging in the street, in India, it really bothered me– that I went home to a very nice home with a very loving family. Then, you know, again, I have other spiritual beliefs also. So something would really pull me and pave the way.

I wanted to become a doctor. I didn’t get into medical college. And then grumbling, I just went into home economics, and then fell into child development. But then I said: ah, this is it. This is where I needed to land.

And then after coming to that, I was teaching suddenly. Somebody offered me a scholarship to get counseling training, after coming here. And I started working, in in the early ‘90s. It was difficult to get a job, an immigrant woman. But then somebody calls me to the Y and offers me the project. And then eventually they didn’t want me to leave. And they were willing to listen to me and start a children’s program. And then they would support me to get the play therapy training. Then somebody would send me to Ireland. I was the only one going, along with another lady from Montréal. We were the only ones representing Canada there in Belfast. And then I happened to meet the Sri Lankan representatives. And you see, you know– everything seemed to connect like that. When I really had that passion and the intensity, it seemed I could really make things come together for me.

You know, even this interview. This past two years, I’ve been completely staying away. I thought that I would really miss work when I retired. But I don’t seem to, actually. I do some work with special needs kids on a weekly basis in the spiritual center I work at, but nothing heavy duty. Only art and creativity. So I said: okay, I’m just calming down.

But then, when suddenly I get an email [asking to do this interview], this again keeps coming back. It’s almost like sometimes: did I do all this work? And then after the first: yeah, I did. The memories, they are not gone. They are there still. And then all that information is still there. Like, hey, I did that kind of a thing.

But then, the options are either you do it, or you motivate others as a teacher. Some students took to it, really. I did get an email from one student saying that she was in DR Congo. And there was somebody who was working in some international rescue committee in Pakistan. And then I got another email from a student who settled in Australia, and she said she had adopted a child from China. Because we used to talk a lot about adoption, and the one child policy of China. They felt that they wanted me to know. So these are the things like– it’s not that I take credit or anything, but the story continues.

KLM: I think that’s s a really amazing way to look at it. That first you do the work that’s difficult, and it’s painful. And then you sort of say consciously: I am passing the torch on to a different generation. I’m stepping back from this work, but it continues, and it’s always going to continue. And I did my role in in the generations in that way. So that’s really beautiful.

CS: Yeah. In the very first class when I introduced myself, this is what I’d tell them: I’ve done all these things, I’m calming down, I’m not doing this anymore. That’s the purpose of this. My purpose in teaching you is: you take it where you want to take it. But I need to tell you what is what.

I thought it would be really very hard to give up all these things, but then maybe it’ll come in some other form. But not direct work anymore. The world has changed.

One of the ladies I met in Montréal, she went to work for the International Rescue Committee, and she lost her life there. Working for children, girls’ education. And just for that, she was killed. She lost her life.

When something like that happens, it really hits you hard. And makes you think: still, why do people do this kind of work? I still don’t feel that I did such heavy-duty work or anything. I did some work. That’s about it.

KLM: The last area I wanted you to touch on, because I think it’s really important to include. I have wanted to have people from many cultures, and all around the world, in this series. I don’t want it to be a North American or a white-centered project. You mentioned something [in our pre-interview] about having a little bit of discomfort with the word and the concept of “trauma” at all. And this idea that maybe it’s a bit Western. We talked about how when people are trained in school, we think about Freud, we think about how the word comes from the ancient Greek and it’s the word “wound.”

It’s not to say that it’s not a useful concept, or that it’s a concept we should throw out completely. But that you did have a bit of discomfort with, is this “traumawork” at all? Or, what does it mean to do traumawork?

And maybe that the concept of trauma, as we’re thinking about it here, might be a bit Western. That there’s something between the individual and the collective, and the experiences you had working with the community, with the tsunami, that differs. And so maybe you could say a bit about that? How you see trauma as a different concept in non-Western cultures, for example. The word itself, or the actual different ways that people deal with terrible situations and grief.

CS: My discomfort comes from the way it is presented in many situations. For example, after the tsunami. The people… there are so many NGOs. They would go and ask: what happened to your family? Did you lose anybody? And then: how did it make you feel? All these people are already grieving. You keep going, asking again and again. They were puzzled, too. Because they are not a culture where they are talking about feelings all the time. But at the same time, they may not talk about it– every minute they may not say I love you. Or: I’m upset, I’m angry. They are not labeling or identifying their feelings. Doesn’t mean that they don’t feel it. They do.

If you look at the grieving process, the way they do it, they would cry out loud. The whole community will come and cry. Everybody will have a good cry. The losses to them are so immense that they will do all this kind of things. But at the same time, to say that you are “traumatized”…

One of my colleagues who was working in Sri Lanka, he came and was very upset one day after the tsunami. People had lost their homes, so they were housed in some school. He said this one family is not even cooking food for the children. The children are hungry. So we had to get the food for them. I said: why? You distributed the food, rice and stuff like that? Why are they not cooking? He said: they told me that, this person came to our house and then she asked us questions, and she said that we are traumatized. And so maybe we are sick or something. So, see how it plays on people!

I’m not saying that people are not traumatized. That’s the word we use here very commonly. But how do you make it culturally, community-wise, appropriate? Sometimes you can just maybe get hung up on the terms, and not exactly what it means. And, what do you mean by that?

Sometimes I’m guilty of that, too, being I’ve been here for forty years. I mean, the kids come to play with me and I’d say: oh, how are you today? And one of them told me very clearly: you know, every time you come, you ask me how I feel. Ask me how I am, not how I feel. Maybe I’ll tell you.

I would do sand therapy, and I’d have everything, the miniatures, everything ready. This one kid really was into that. And so I had this vision– this child is going to tell all about their story in the sand, and so we can use that, the best to deal with this. And after two weeks, she came to me and she said: I’m glad that you have all these things. I’m going to do that. But only one condition. She was only seven years, mind you. She said: don’t ask me what the story is about. I will not tell you. It is my story.

And another kid, she had been taken by CAS because of some family issues. And she came. She was brought there because they felt that she really needed counseling. And the first thing she said was: I really do not want to talk about CAS. Or the foster family.

And so to an extent, we need to be very aware of the intrusion of privacy. And when you use these words, when you are doing this work in the community, sometimes it is an issue of safety. Also in a war situation, too.

I was doing a project with an international organization once and one of my colleagues was telling me they went into a community, and there was a community facilitator with a group of young women. And the community facilitator was asking the women to talk about what they thought of rape and sexual abuse. The facilitator was asking the women to tell the stories. And he was a young man, too. Can you imagine not only being a victim, but also being revictimized? And then, you know, feeling helpless?

So this is where my issue with these terms lies, and I’m still struggling with that. Like, what do you mean by trauma? How do you define it? How do you bring it to the community context in places like these? It is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. Things that happen to you, and how you deal with that. And also seeing the person, not just as an individual, but as a part of the family, as part of the community. But sometimes, the family or the community are the ones who are creating the situation. I’m very aware of that, too. So I still have all this whenever I hear the word. “This person is so traumatized”. And I’d say: what do you mean by that?

KLM: Well, right. It sounds like what you’re very rightly pointing out is that by labeling someone as traumatized, you can retraumatize them. Or by being too intrusive, or being too invasive, or too clinical. Or, I’m trying so hard to help you and to save you that I’m actually harming you. That would be the impulse, I think, that that people need to be very mindful of. And especially if they’re coming from outside the community and saying: I’m here to help. Let me tell you what’s wrong with you. Then that’s always going to be a possibly injurious act, or injurious process. So it’s got to be done very much more sensitively.

CS: Very cautiously! And in a way that means something to your client, the person you are working with. And with children. Like I would never use the word “counseling”. If you asked any of my clients, they would say: I go to Chitra to play. But, she does ask sometimes very difficult questions. And sometimes I answer. Sometimes I don’t answer. Okay, why is she asking you questions? She says to make me feel better. Does it make you feel better? Yeah, sometimes. When she asks me to take deep breaths. I even used to do yoga.

With children, you cannot use them. Saying you are traumatized doesn’t mean a thing. And that is not the marker that I use in my mind, either– this kid is so traumatized. I say: oh, my God, this child has been through so many difficulties.

But then again, the thing with me is– the wonderment always comes to me. Whether it is in the middle of nowhere in the war zone, or my very established room in Ottawa. It’s the children’s resiliency and the parents’ resiliency, also. Like, how are they able to deal with this? If the things the children are going through is very difficult for the parents, seeing the parents going through things is difficult for the children too. So this is my context. These children have been through… I never think “the child is so traumatized”. I think the child has been so shaken up. How do I help with that?

Maybe because my original training was in India. And even then, all our textbooks in India, that I went through, they were all from the West. Many of them didn’t make any sense to me.

Maybe it did create some issues in my career path here also. There is always this invisible thing. The way I’ve been brought up, the way I’ve been thinking, the experiences I have had, shaped the way I work. And so to just contain concepts, this kind of thing– it’s kind of difficult for me.

KLM: Well, I think I think there is certainly probably a cultural element to it that’s important. But I think that culturally, but also probably who you are as an individual, allowed you to move your way through these difficult processes. Taking lessons of optimism and hope from it, and learning from the children. Instead of being weighed down by their problems, they helped to uplift you in a way. And so there’s kind of a beautiful process in that.

Instead of, if somebody becomes sort of clinically depressed by working with, let’s say, traumatized children, or children who have been through terrible things, then that’s not the field for them. Because they can’t help the children if they’re also being sort of poisoned by the bad experiences.

But it sounds like what you were able to do in all of these different fields, over all of these years, was to find the gift in it. Or find the beauty in it. And to give them something, and they gave you something. And so, it was the right field for you.

CS: I suppose so! [laughter] It’s also ability to see the humor in the situation. The things the children say! They would tell me: don’t let your hair become white, use color so that you can live longer. My grandmother died, so you may die too.

One girl said: if you go to heaven, there won’t be any children there. I can see that you like playing with children. What will you do there in heaven? [laughter] And then, I’m not going to tell her that there may be children in heaven, too. No, I’m not. Because I waited for her response, she took it one step further. And she says: you wait. You may have to wait for a longer time because I’m much younger than you. [laughter] You’ll grow old, and then I’ll get there, and then we can play together.

And when you think about it– I’m just driving home and I’m thinking about this concept, then when I went to bed, I was thinking: Oh my God, that’s the kind of heaven I would like to be in. Where I can be playing with the children.

So they would give me these kind of things. Something which got me going, the interest in hearing what they say and then being amazed, always amazed with whatever little things that the child says. The sense of accomplishment, sense of wonderment, and then the sense of the sadness and the grief and then the trauma and the loss. All those things, along with that.

KLM: Right. But still humor, and still resiliency, and still wisdom. The wisdom of children and all of that.

CS: Yeah. I tell my students, with children– maybe they had this many bad experiences, but they have so much space to grow. The reason why I don’t work with adults is that their card is almost full. [laughter] There’s only a little bit left…

It’s very difficult to deal with that. There are some wonderful people who do that. Maybe that is one of the reasons I work with children. My attention span is limited, and it is exasperated afterwards with adults. After working with children for so long, I don’t have the patience to be listening hours on end to what people are talking about. But hats off to people who can do that.

KLM: Yeah, but it’s really amazing. It’s all a matter of perspective then, because there are certainly people who would say: Oh my God, I could never work with children who’ve been through horrible abuse, or children who’ve lived through war. Because life is depressing enough. And then to think about children dealing with that is even more depressing. I can’t even think about that. And you’re saying: no, that’s the space for some joy. And because they can still change, that it’s actually preferable to you than working with adults. That’s really an amazing way to look at it.

CS: Yeah. After the tsunami, like we were talking about. Whenever they thinkabout the persons they’ve lost, they start crying, and then they are angry, that they went. And all these feelings. And I said: if I can tell you one thing, just know, remember this. When you become old and when you have your own kids, when you talk about the tsunami, about the big black wave coming, you won’t be this sad. You will be sad, but not this sad. And when you tell the same story to your grandchildren, you won’t even feel anything. It’s something that happened. Because you’re focusing more on your grandchildren.

So it’s also giving them the feeling that– you are going to grow up. You are going to have your children, you are going to have your grandchildren, too. And life is like that. We don’t know why the tsunami happened, but it happened. You are dealing with that. You will be able to deal with that. So this is what I learned from them. And I want them to hear from me, too.

KLM: Wow, that’s beautiful. Thank you so much. What a beautiful conversation. Is there anything else, any last things you’d like to add?

CS: Thank you for giving me the chance. You know, I’m all about acrylic and oil painting these days, and completely forgotten all these kind of things. And it made me realize that, no, it’s still there. The ability to actually do the work is not there, physically, it’s not there. But there’s still things there.

I won’t go back to teaching. Especially now, I’m not interested. But then, it made me revisit. Like: yeah, I did. I did do a reasonable job. Yeah, I can live with that. So this interview kind of brought back those affirmations.

KLM: I’m so glad. I think it reflects on the stage of life that you’re at, where you’re perfectly allowed to say: I did my work and now I can… like again, that idea of passing of the torch. And now I can focus on things that make me happy and I can rest and relax.

CS: There are a lot of wonderful people around, they just do at the community level, they create artwork with children and play with children. I was one who had to do it like I did.  And I was one who had a chance to do it. It’s feeling blessed that I had opportunity.

Thinking back, seeing a child who was walking on a tightrope in India, performing, when I was a kid. And he always stayed with me. Not knowing what happened to that child. From that, to move on, and go through this whole series of things. And having the ability and then opportunities to do that, I think is a true blessing.