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I am an activist first, and then I am a mother…” – Leymah Gbowee, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize

For those following our progress on Still We Rise – a documentary film about an extraordinary mental health program in Liberia – there’s good news: we’re scheduled to return to the country in May, which is just around the corner.

In addition to firming up our shoot schedule for our second visit, we are ramping up our outreach. And what better way to kick all of this off than an evening with Leymah Gbowee, the recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize and an inspiring, eloquent speaker.

Last night I joined a packed room at the international law firm Skadden Arps to hear Gbowee, who led the women’s movement responsible for bringing peace to Liberia after 14 years of war. Her story is featured in the amazing documentary by Abigail Disney – Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

What Gbowee experienced in Liberia during the war is something far beyond most of our worst nightmares. During those years, Gbowee said she moved through life as if it were an out of body experience; the violence to horrible to contemplate.  She questioned the existence of God, became angry, and then – in her words – “I sunk into the depths of whatever you call it.” Despair. Depression. Anger. Trauma.

But like so many Liberians who suffered unspeakable trauma during the war years, Gbowee is yet another reminder – and a powerful one – of the collective resilience of the human spirit. She began to organize the women in nearby communities, and realized that the very women who had been raped and tortured were the ones advocating for peace. Together, these women not only mobilized to force an end to the war – they found hope.

Hearing Gbowee speak reminds me just how much these mental health clinicians in our film can achieve in Liberia, where more than 40 percent of the population suffers symptoms of PTSD. These young men and women are doing exactly what Gbowee calls on people around the world to do: “Make your voices heard. Reach out. Do what you can in your own back yard.”

At the end of the event I approached Ms. Gbowee to introduce myself and thank her for giving me the inspiration and strength to make a film about Liberia. As a mother, I told her, you make me feel like anything is possible. I didn’t know what to expect – hordes of people were waiting for her autograph, or like me, for the chance to say a few words to her. She thanked me, and then reached out and hugged me with so much enthusiasm that I swear I can still feel the breadth of her arms around me.

Stay tuned for more as our return trip approaches, and our fundraising begins in earnest. For those who donate to our campaign on Kickstarter, we will have a very special reward – limited edition, signed copies of Ms. Gbowee’s memoir.

Do what you can, even in your own backyard.

Leymah Gbowee, Winner Nobel Peace Prize
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Still We RiseA story of healing, hope and promise for a broken nation

We’ve finished the trailer for our documentary, and are excited to begin sharing it. For more information on the film of how to support it, visit: www.stillwerisethemovie.com

After 14 years of a brutal civil war the West African nation of Liberia is still rebuilding, but struggling against a silent and devastating adversary: trauma. For a population of more than 4 million there is only one practicing psychiatrist and one psychiatric hospital – until now. Against extraordinary odds, a group of 21 newly certified mental health workers are setting out to heal widespread psychological trauma. Still We Rise follows these young men and women on a remarkable journey of healing, hope and promise for a broken nation.

For more information about the film or how you can get involved, please contact me at mollyraskin@msn.com


 

from the frontlines

Days Four, Five, Six, Seven

When I planned to keep a daily post from Liberia, I wasn’t aware of just how fragile the country’s infrastructure is – particularly when it comes to the Internet. A few days into our stay, our hotel’s wireless connection inexplicably went down, only to return just before our departure.So, a few highlights from the remainder of our week.

First stop: Monrovia Central Prison. Not a place that tops the list of most visitors to Liberia, but integral to our story. Ben was not allowed to film, but we shot some exteriors and I entered armed with nothing but pen/paper.

Anyone who has spent time in a US prison knows they can be pretty down-and-out. But I wasn’t quite prepared for the scene at this detention center, located just a few blocks from our hotel in town. Surrounded by high cement walls and tangled circles of razor wire, it’s physically intimidating. There’s plenty of security – some of it provided by international forces – but it’s a prison, and its in bad shape. It’s overcrowded, dirty and bleak. It holds approximately 900 inmates, and of those, only about 90 have been convicted of a crime (according to recent news reports) – the country’s overburdened justice system simply can’t take on more cases.

 

Monrovia Central Prison

That said, several organizations are beginning to improve the place, including the Carter Center. Our visit was timed to the unveiling of a new room – freshly painted, clean and cheerful considering its surroundings – to allow patients who are mentally ill to receive counseling and have a safe, quiet place to visit with their families. The Carter Center even set up the start of a library inside, which has a few shelves of books and a desk. It might seem a small gesture, but it’s one that has the potential to provide much-needed services to many prisoners with mental illness. It also proves just how advanced this mental health initiative aims to be, as advocates in the US have long been fighting for more such services in our prison system.

Reuben

Later in the day, we were passing a massive dirt field used for soccer games and came to a screeching halt. The amputee soccer team! We’d hoped to catch them in action since we heard their story, so we pulled on to the sidelines.

The soccer team was formed in 2007 to help close the gap between men who previously fought each other during the country’s violent civil war – all of them victims of brutal violence that took at least one of their limbs. Shortly after the first team was formed a league of six teams sprouted in Monrovia and in 2008, the Liberian National Amputee soccer team were the champions of Africa.

Their athleticism is remarkable. But even more inspiring is the fact that for many of the young men on the team, soccer has been a lifesaver. We watched a practice match, and Ben shot some amazing footage. Just before we left, we met Reuben. Polite, but clearly desperate, he explained that he didn’t have the right crutches to play competitively (his were the clunky metal kind one uses for a broken ankle – the players are required to use crutches that are more like canes, which attach to their arms below the elbow).

 

The players had their limbs amputated during the war

 

We hear countless tales of suffering during our visit, but Rueben’s stuck with us. His teammates gathered to explain that he was telling the truth, and that he could play if he could get the right crutches (which was not possible at $20 a pair). Admittedly, Reuben was a skilled salesman. He wasn’t pushy, but he stated his case with a few tears and it was enough. We told him we’d try and find a pair, and would meet him the next afternoon at the field. The next day Ben and I ventured out to a medical supply store on the side of the road, only to find it was closed. We were out of luck, so we headed to the field to let Rueben know we’d tried our best.

Even for a tough guy, it was hard for Reuben to hide his disappointment. We would have handed him the money, but the team’s coach is cautious when it comes to donations – steadfast in ensuring that every penny that comes their way goes to just cause. We left our contact numbers and asked Rueben to call if he could find someone to supply him with the crutches.

Liberia's amputee soccer stars

No more than five minutes after we’d left the field, we got a call saying he’d found them – and he was waiting less than a mile down the road. We made a quick U-turn (perilous in Monrovia traffic), and found him on a small side street with a brand new pair of athletic crutches for amputees in hand. How much? The women selling them quoted us $20. Rubin looked anxious. I asked him to try them out. He did, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on his face. At that moment, it was clear that all he wanted in life was the opportunity to get on the field and play soccer. We bought them, handed them over and he thanked us (and God) and hopped down the dirt alley grinning ear to ear.

That night Ben hit the sports arena for a much-hyped soccer match between Liberia and Angola, but I bowed out. The long days, sad stories and perhaps even some jet lag got the better of me. Good thing I did! Although he enjoyed the match and made it back to the hotel safely, Ben’s account of getting into the stadium was one of total mayhem.

Graduation Day!

A big day for the Carter Center’s mental health program and its class of 21 certified mental health workers. Despite a morning of torrential rain, it cleared just in time for a moving graduation ceremony held outside the country’s biggest hospital – JFK.

 

Preparing for the ceremony and celebration

The students in this program are exceptional in so many ways. First, they all volunteered – with much sacrifice – to attend the rigorous 5-month training program to earn their certification. Second, they have signed on to become the country’s FIRST certified mental health workers. For some of them, this means returning to their villages to treat people who are highly stigmatized for being mentally ill – thought to be witched or cursed, contagious and simply crazy. And these are villages where resources are scarce. Still, they seem undaunted – and clearly thrilled to become mental health pioneers. They also received brand new laptop computers from The Carter Center, with software designed by a program called Computing for Good at Georgia Tech, and the looks on their faces when they had the machines in hand were priceless.

The rest of our trip was spent touring the city, shopping (an excursion for necklaces, wood carvings, fabric), and taking in what more we could of life in Liberia.

Homeward Bound

By departure day I was ready to come home. I missed my family beyond words, and I confess I also missed some creature comforts (strong coffee!). But as we lifted off from the airfield for the 26-hour journey home, I couldn’t help but hope that it was not my first and only trip to Liberia. In just over a week, we met so many extraordinary people who are making great sacrifices to try and ensure that a country ravaged by war can achieve lasting peace and prosperity. So much hangs in the balance in Liberia. They’ve had five years of a peaceful democracy, but it’s incredibly fragile.

Beyond this, there are Liberia’s every day citizens – those who have lived through tragedy beyond most of our worst nightmares and have every reason to give up. But they really haven’t. With a referendum and election on the horizon, so many of them are hopeful and one can’t help but hope for them.

Finally, there’s the reason I traveled to Liberia: mental health. Before our trip, I understood at a basic level the need for the services the Carter Center is working so hard to make available. Now, however, I can say with absolute certainty that the psychological well being of the entire country is CRITICAL to its future. Everyone who remained in Liberia during the war knows trauma first hand, and the impact of this on the national psyche, the primary care system and the economy is devastating. You can’t have a stable, productive society when more than 40 percent of the population suffers symptoms of PTSD.

In just a few weeks, the Carter Center’s newly minted mental health graduates will begin treating people across the country in desperate need of care. Their task is a daunting one, but I have no doubt that they’ll make a measurable difference.

Helpful Links: The Carter Center’s Mental Health Programs: www.cartercenter.org/health/mental_health/index.html

Computing for Good: http://www.cc.gatech.edu/about/advancing/c4g

from the frontlines

Day Three.

Just after sunrise on Tuesday, I had the opportunity to join Dr. Janice Cooper – country lead for the Carter Center mental health program in Liberia – on her morning walk. Dr. Cooper is one of the reasons I made this trip. An expert in mental health policy for children, Dr. Cooper’s resume is extensive: a doctoral degree from Harvard, a teaching position at Columbia, and prestigious positions in the private, public and non-profit sectors. But her story is extraordinary for reasons well beyond her resume. Dr. Cooper is a native Liberian who fled the country during its brutal civil war. Now, she’s returned after many years to treat people who she says suffered much greater trauma than her own.

In the early morning, the streets of Monrovia are relatively quiet. For Dr. Cooper the routine is more than just exercise (though she does move at an impressive clip). It’s also her time to meditate on why she’s returned, and why the work she’s doing – with its many challenges – is so important. As she pushes vigorously through the streets, including one of the toughest in town, Dr. Cooper sometimes sees people she knows are in need of counseling. But she also sees signs of hope – children in pressed school uniforms, political campaign ads for a fair and peaceful election, even old family friends. And then there are the less obvious signs of resilience, like the women who rise early to sweep the filth of the streets from their doorways and storefronts. If there is anything they can control, it’s their right to a clean place to live. To their dignity.

The message was fitting for our next morning stop at a nearby soccer field – a long stretch of clay-colored dirt for both scheduled and pickup games. And since 2003, it’s been home to an extraordinary group: Women for Liberia Mass Action for Peace. These women are credited with bringing an end to the second civil war in Liberia through massive organized sit-ins that made them a political force, and ushered in the election of the first female head of state in Africa, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Because it’s the rainy season here, a steady shower had blown in by the time we pulled up to the field. But through our rain-soaked windshield, I saw a large Liberian flag and the brightly colored tops of a few umbrellas. Then, the women. Women of all ages, both Muslim and Christian, huddled together in the rain. Wearing white T-shirts bearing messages of non-violence, they had been sitting there all morning. When we spoke to one of the group’s leaders, we learned that they plan to sit there several days a week until the next election in October – dancing, talking, singing and praying to maintain stability and peace.

The atrocities these women witnessed are beyond my worst nightmares. Many of them lost their husbands, children, extended family. Their homes were looted and burned. But they press on.

To end our day we traveled to the training center for the new carter center mental health students on the grounds of JFK Hospital. These students volunteered for the program, some traveling long hours from their villages for the training to become the country’s first organized class of mental health workers. They are such a bright, energetic, inspiring group – genuinely thrilled by the great challenge that lies ahead for them.

A full day, but another memorable one. I confess that I’ve had many moments since we arrived when I’ve heard a heart-breaking story, or caught sight of a small child in squalor on the streets, and felt the kind of helplessness I know is common among visitors to third world countries. Somehow, thinking that every little bit makes a difference doesn’t seem to help. When you see these things, you don’t want to offer a little bit, you want to offer everything possible to make things better.

At these moments, I just look across the room at one of the people here – like Dr. Cooper, Rodney Presley, the Carter Center volunteers, the iron women – and think that if they can do this, surely I can, too. There’s a wonderful commencement speech by one of my favorite musicians – Bono – a few years back. In it, he said this:

Every era has its defining struggle and the fate of Africa is one of ours. It’s not the only one, but in the history books it’s easily going to make the top five, what we did or what we did not do. Whether it’s this or something else, I hope you’ll pick a fight and get in it. Get your boots dirty, get rough, steel your courage with a final drink there at Smoky Joe’s, one last primal scream and go…