Therapist works in Jordan to heal Syrian, Iraqi refugees

A sense of familiarity washes over April Gamble as a middle-aged Iraqi man limps into her clinic in Amman, Jordan. His mannerisms remind the Cadillac woman of her father; he’s even wearing the same brand of blue jeans. But his story couldn't be more different. 

The unnamed client was kidnapped from his home and held prisoner for 18 months. He doesn’t know who his captors are, but he knows what makes him a target. Extremist groups in Iraq and Syria don’t care for his brand of religion, especially adherents who brush shoulders with organizations from the United States. 

He was suspended from the ceiling and beaten; at times he was electrocuted. And the suffering was likely in vain. Clients at the Center for Victims of Torture rarely report being abused to elicit specific information. Instead, survivors believe it was done simply to intimidate or create fear. 

Gamble is a physiologist and trainer from Cadillac who graduated from Grand Valley State University in 2012 with a doctorate in physical therapy. She moved to Amman from Cadillac last October to work for CVT, an international nonprofit charged with helping heal survivors of violent conflicts. 

She assists clients directly with symptoms ranging from chronic pain and headaches to sleeping and stress disorders. Her facility deals primarily with refugees from Iraq and Syria, fleeing their war-torn countries for hopes of a better life. Gamble leads a team of physical therapists who helped rebuild the lives of more than 1,000 refugees in Jordan last year. 

“The clients have both the physical disabilities as well as psychological symptoms,” she said. “So there are nightmares, depression, anxiety and irritability. On the physical side is pain that prevents them from doing what they need to do for their life.” Gamble’s clients are those who are at the highest risk for instability. 

Often her patients are unable to hold a job or maintain relationships with their family because of the trauma they’ve experienced. But, in many instances — like with the man who reminds Gamble of her father — the treatment has allowed for a near-complete recovery. She starts clients out with physical therapy sessions and a goal-oriented exercise routine. 

Psychosocial counseling runs simultaneously to help process the trauma. Clients are then transitioned into group therapy to build social skills. Often, Gamble’s groups will have Syrian and Iraqi clients together, creating a melting pot of religious and ethnic backgrounds. For many, she said, it’s the first time that these individuals have interacted with people outside of their culture. By the end of 10 weeks they’re like family. 

Gamble’s clients share foods with one another, along with music and dances from their native countries. Each patient shares the common bond of hardship which allows them to heal together, she said. “It’s so cool to see them become this united group where it’s people from all different backgrounds kind of uniting and sharing things,” she said. “A lot of times, after a group, they’ll maintain contact outside of the organization.” 

Gamble’s experience working in Jordan has allowed her to expand on an already progressive worldview. The only difference between her father in Ludington and the victim in Amman is circumstance, she said. “I think it’s just important to remember that — wherever the refugees are from — they’re just like any other person,” she said, comparing refugees to returning American veterans. 

“If those situations happened to us, that’s exactly the difficulties that we would experience.” 

Peter Dross, the director of external relations at CVT, said the mass media has a tendency to paint a picture of refugees fleeing in Iraq and Syria as a faceless mass. That portrait couldn’t be more off-base, he said. 

“We know them to be teachers, nurses, doctors, attorneys, engineers, bankers, small business owners, government employees,” he said. “We know them to be mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers ... We know them to be people just like us.” Gamble’s contract with CVT expires in less than eight months, at which point she’ll be faced with a decision to either return to northern Michigan or continue working to better the lives of countless refugees entering Jordan each day. 

She hasn’t made up her mind. For now, she’s focusing on the impact she can make today, she said. “I love that journey of being with someone and giving them the tools and the resources they need to continue their lives,” she said. “It’s very rewarding; it helps me keep in perspective what’s important.” 


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