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Healing Souls: Navigating Conflict through Trauma Healing

Hazara Students at a Healing Souls session
A group of students working
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The Hazara Community are an ethnic minority in Pakistan facing persecution. Healing Souls is a locally-led initiative, led by Sajjad Hussain Aasim. Focusing on addressing mental health challenges within the community, including support on healing from complex trauma.

  • Published

    14 May 2024
  • Written by

    Ruth Mileham
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The Hazara Community are an ethnic minority in Pakistan, who mainly live in Quetta, a city in south west Pakistan. The Hazara community has faced years of conflict, violence, and persecution. The rise in violent religious extremism has particularly affected the community, who experience relentless attacks from extremist groups through bombings and targeted killings. 

As minority Shia Muslims, Hazara people are targeted by anti-Shia and Sunni extremists. Two bombings in 2013 killed over 100 Hazara people and injured many more. The decades-long exposure to persecution and violence has led to a dramatic increase in mental health challenges. Many are experiencing symptoms of depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The trauma faced by many is alongside the grief of losing loved ones, becoming internally displaced and suffering severe economic challenges.

The Start of Healing Souls

HIVE, one of our partners in Pakistan, has been working with the Hazara community to support their healing, and support members of the community to process the complex trauma they continue to experience. Led by Sajjad Hussain Aasim, Healing Souls is an initiative focussed on addressing the mental health challenges within the community. From the Hazara community himself, Aasim holds a PHD in International Relations and after visiting Quetta, he noticed a vast shift in the behaviour of young people there. Aasim witnessed an increasingly hostile environment with heightened aggression. Driven by a lack of understanding and a desire for a safe space, mental health challenges are on the rise for the community. 

Aasim speaks of how 68.2% of Hazara individuals are experiencing PTSD, and how knowledge of this became the cornerstone of Healing Soul.

Working to raise awareness and reduce the stigma of mental health, sessions are specifically tailored to reflect the Hazara culture and are dedicated to the healing process. 

Even when Hazara people leave Quetta to seek employment and safety, they often face discrimination based on their distinct appearance making it difficult for them to settle and secure livelihoods. Aasiam explains; “Our distinctive appearance makes us appear threatening to employers, hindering our chances of finding work and placing us in vulnerable positions. We’re unfairly labelled as a constant security risk, while merely trying to make a living.” 

Healing Souls aims to support people in securing employment and fostering community support for those who may no longer live near their family and friends. With a focus on income generation and financial security training. 

Neimat, a Programme Assistant with Healing Soul, has first-hand experience of just how ongoing the impact of conflict is on the mental health of Hazara people.

Neimat and Sajjad discussing their work at a desk.
Neimat (left), alongside Sajjad (right) discussing their personal experiences.
“At just 5 years old, I found myself amidst the chaos of an Ashura commemoration in Quetta, where a catastrophic blast shattered the peaceful gathering. The scenes of extreme bloodshed, panic, and anxiety left an enduring mark on my mental health. I still struggle to make sense of all this bloodshed.”

Removing the Stigma

Healing Souls is a 10-session programme focussed on healing trauma. The first two sessions focus on raising awareness and removing stigmas around mental health. This focus develops as the programme continues, with the final sessions specifically providing psychosocial support. The sessions also aim to highlight how intrinsically linked mental health is with other pillars of well-being, such as financial and social stability. The programme aims to educate people on income generation and financial security, alongside improving their understanding of just how vast the impact of trauma can be on a person when trying to rebuild their livelihoods and community. 

Following her sister being targeted in an attack, Sakina Ali has attended these sessions to help her process her own trauma and anxiety. Sakina shares how she previously had no understanding of PTSD, and how significant mental health is in our overall well-being. On the importance of the Healing Soul, she adds:

“Healing Souls was one of the earliest programmes that helped normalise conversations about mental health. Before this programme, we lacked awareness of the signs and symptoms of these crucial issues and how to support each other during difficult times.” 

Sakina talking to a room during a programme session
Sakina Ali Explaining how Hazara were confined to designated areas in the name of protection.

A Sense of Community

Healing Souls has had and continues to have a great impact on the Quetta Hazara community, encouraging feelings of support and inclusivity. Most notably, the last session of Healing Souls brought together Hazaras who have had to leave Quetta for an open day in Islamabad. Aasiam notes that despite people possibly being safer outside of Quetta, they face isolation, discrimination and become disconnected from their community. This final open day gave a safe space to celebrate the Harazi culture and to connect with new and old friends.  

Neimat reminisced on the day:

“It felt like a home away from home. The sense of peace and security that enveloped us that day will remain the highlight of the life I lived so far.”

There is a deep need within Quetta, and beyond, to ensure protective measures are in place against targeted violence whilst supporting a sense of community. Healing Souls is committed to working with the community to support in breaking the cycle of generational trauma faced by so many.

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