Interview with Rosa Jeyapalan, Transitional Support Counsellor at the Barbra Schlifer Clinic
Q: By definition, the humanitarian worker provides material and logistic support to people with the objective of saving lives, alleviating suffering and maintaining human dignity. Do you consider yourself a humanitarian worker?
Rosa: Yes. I work with people in distress, who are looking for a way out of an abusive relationship, financial constraints, or exploitative circumstances that threaten their human dignity and, oftentimes, their physical safety. My job is to help support survivors of violence re-establish themselves in the community and build independent lives. In this sense, the work we do at the clinic and my job, in particular, are humanitarian in nature. All of the services we offer such as counselling, transitional support, court support, immigration and family law, interpretation services are designed to help survivors of violence, alleviate suffering and offer a new beginning to people in desperate circumstances.
Q: What about your role makes you most proud to be a humanitarian?
Rosa: In my role as a transitional and housing support counsellor, I help women plan a safe escape from circumstances of abuse. This includes physical risk assessment, safety planning, help with accommodation, income support, daycare needs. A woman who has lived in dependency on an abusive intimate partner, for example, needs access to many resources before she can find her footing on new ground. The road from abuse to independence is not an easy one and requires many bridges. This is what we do at the Clinic, we extend bridges over turbulent waters – we substitute unhealthy psychological and material dependence of abusive relationships with healthy reliance on community support and services that offer an opportunity for growth.
Q: Humanitarian efforts tend to support a particular cause. What is the cause you support by working at the Clinic?
Rosa: The Clinic’s mission is to support survivors of gender-based violence, but also advocate for women’s rights and social change. A huge part of overcoming gender inequality is educating women on their rights and a healthy sense of self-respect. If a woman does not know how to respect herself, she would not know how to recognize abuse or how to stand up to it. Therefore, our mission is to empower women to live their lives with dignity and contribute to wholesome communities that provide meaning and belonging.
Q: Given your experience and knowledge, what is change is needed on the governmental, socio-economic, and community level to prevent gender-based violence?
Rosa: Violence against women is rooted in gender-based discrimination, social norms and stereotypes that normalize and perpetuate inequality. To achieve a stable shift in attitudes, on the level of government we need more funding for violence prevention programs such as workshops, counselling, job facilitation, and housing. On the community level, the patriarchal value system that tends to form power-based relationships has to to be re-worked into a value system that encourages equal participation and mutual respect among all members of the community. Finally, on a person-to-person level, people of influence need to take the responsibility to lead by example.
Q: Working at the Clinic can expose you to extraordinary situations that involve women and their experience with violence, in which trauma is common. How do you manage your susceptibility and exposure to vicarious trauma?
Rosa: I have the support of my co-workers. We take care of each other, share resources and knowledge on possible solutions. It is easy to keep brave when you have a good team behind you. Another thing that helps is my gardening hobby. It is very soothing because it reminds me of the cycles of renewal in nature, the possibility for growth and improvement for all of us. Most of all, my clients’ successes keep me going. Watching their progress towards independent life is very gratifying. It reminds me that my work is important to someone – it creates a meaningful change.
Q: Have you ever felt that you are unable to help? What helps you regain your positive attitude?
Rosa: Negativity is not an option. You cannot give up when someone’s life is on the line. Yes, occasionally there are not enough resources to go around. Then you have to work hard to make alternative arrangements. The goal is to stabilize a stressful and risky life situation by bringing in as much normalcy in it as possible.
Q: Do you have a story from your practice that stands out for you or reminds you why you wanted to be involved in this line of work?
Rosa: Yes, many, but one stands out. Victim Witness referred a client to me. She was from Sri Lanka and lived in an underserved community in Toronto. Her husband was abusive and an alcoholic, and did not let her work. She was taking care of their children and rarely left the house because she did not speak English. Her biggest fear was that someday her husband might kill her and leave the children orphans. Luckily, neighbours called the police hearing her screams during one of those beatings.
When I met this client, she was thrilled to have someone she could speak to in her own language. She was also relieved to find out that she could use interpreters to go to the doctor or access social service previously inaccessible to her. I helped her enroll in ESL classes, find subsidized housing, get income support (social assistance) and subsidized daycare. Slowly, but surely she builds herself up from the ground and now enjoys an independent life free of violence. She provides for herself and her children working as a bus driver for TTC. She is also very a religious and regular churchgoer. Once she shared with me, that when asked to pinpoint a Miracle of God in her life, she said she was thankful for being sent to the Barbara Schlifer Clinic and meeting me to guide her and support her in her hardest times. She also said that without us, she would not be where she is now.