In 1956, Adrienne Carter, co-founder of the Vancouver Island Counselling Centre for Immigrants and Refugees, fled with her family across the Hungarian border to a refugee camp in Austria.
“When I was 12 years old, the revolution in Hungary — that was my country — had broken out, and it kind of changed life completely within a few weeks.”
“My family and I then had to escape from Hungary to Austria. We were in refugee camps, and then we arrived to Canada, just like any other refugees at the present time.”
The trauma Carter lived through set her on a life-long path of healing others.
“At that time, there was not much mental health assistance available to people who had suffered trauma.”
“Because of that, I have learned what I would have liked to have had, but didn’t have.”
Carter spent decades working overseas setting up mental health service groups for refugees, immigrants and victims of torture.
In 2015, Carter moved to Victoria and saw a great need to create a safe haven for immigrants and refugees on Vancouver Island who had survived traumatic experiences in their countries.
And so that year Carter and colleague Linda McLagan founded the Vancouver Island Counselling Centre for Immigrants and Refugees, often shortened to VICCIR.
“We had no money, so we each put in $500, and that’s how the Centre was started. And then, due to various fundraisers, we managed to keep things open.”
David Lau, executive director of the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre, says “the need for counselling is really the first thing that settlement organizations should be thinking of.”
“We need to do an assessment of where people are emotionally. Without having some sort of service to help people get past that initial significant trauma, it tends to affect long-term life outcomes and family outcomes” says Lau.
The Centre has more than 30 professional counsellors and translators, all volunteering their services, to help people of all ages.
Counsellor Ana Pavon moved to Victoria from Spain five years ago.
“I wanted to contribute to my new community,” says Pavon.
“I have a background in law, mediation, counselling, and I thought, what can I do here? So I thought that this is a perfect place to come and contribute to my new community in Canada.”
Sara Kharsa is an Arabic translator at the Centre.
“I’m originally from Syria, but I came from Egypt” Kharsa explains.
She and her husband applied to Canada to continue their education.
“We arrived to [Victoria] Canada in 2016. My husband and I were helping a Syrian family who just arrived to Canada. Their sponsor group was asking for someone to help with translation.”
But working as a translator at VICCIR can be a huge challenge emotionally.
“It’s always hard, and we always have difficulties as interpreters to be neutral, and to avoid having emotions or attachments to the situation,” says Kharsa.
“The Centre provided a training session with an experienced interpreter who helped us with that. It felt like a support group for all the interpreters, and we had time to share our experiences, the difficulties that we’re facing, and that was very helpful. Part of overcoming this trauma that we feel during the session is debriefing with the counsellor,”
“Whenever I have emotions that I cannot understand, I share that, and it becomes kind of a counselling session for the interpreter with the counsellor” adds Kharsa.
Carter points out that “people want to share their stories, and their stories are sometimes so horrifying, what happened to them, that generally people don’t want to hear it because they become traumatized. But our counsellors and our interpreters are very specially trained to hear, and to allow our clients to process their stories.”
“They never forget what happened to them, but many of the symptoms that they come in with really decrease, and very often disappear” says Carter.
To help fund this vital work, VICCIR is hosting a benefit concert on Saturday December 15 at St. Peter’s Anglican Church, 3939 St Peters Road in Victoria, at 2 p.m.
“[The concert] is multi-faith,” says Kharsa, “and everyone is welcome to come.”
“The more people that would come, and find out more about what we do, and just have some time to feel the love that’s present in this place…it would be great to have everyone here.”