Bread for Life: A look at Freedom from Torture's Bread making Group
Yesim Yaprak Yildiz is Freedom from Torture's Communications Fundraiser. She spoke with Saba and Shamsi from Freedom from Torture's Bread Making Group about the therapeutic effects of bread making.
I loved playing with dough when I was a child, especially to bake a cake or bread with my mother. It was not only an amusing activity but also a creative process through which I could express my feelings. In my hometown in Turkey, women would come together to bake bread in clay ovens. While they chat, laugh and bake bread, children would gather around, waiting to be the first one to taste the delicious warm slices of bread that their mothers had baked with care. When I found out about the Bread Making Group at the Freedom from Torture, all of these memories came to my mind.
The role of bread making in therapy
The group has been running since 2006, bringing together men and women from different ages and backgrounds. The group's facilitators, Saba Stefanos and Shamsi Mahdavi, told me that they formed the group to enable clients to reveal their fears and anxieties and reflect on their past through the creative and interactive process of bread making. The group provides a sociable and safe environment for clients to meet and share their past and present experiences with each other.
Saba and Shamsi say that clients also share stories about the real and symbolic meaning of bread in their cultures.
'In this way, bread acts as a means of connecting torture survivors, breaking their isolation and helping them to support one another in the process of healing,' says Saba.
The group not only gives a sense of community and solidarity, but the physical activity of making bread – playing with dough and shaping it – helps the participants to release tension and anxiety. They work with different ingredients, herbs, seeds or anything they want to add, depending on how they feel.
The impact of bread making
I asked them what kind of changes they observed in the lives of the participants. They shared the experiences of two participants with me which show the healing aspect of bread making.
Joseph is in his 30s and fled to the UK from Ghana after torture and ill-treatment. While most of the time bread is associated with good memories, for Joseph it was not. It reminded him of the ill-treatment he was subjected to back in his home country. He was a child soldier who was forced to perform horrific acts of torture on others. When he refused to do this, he himself was tortured. Joseph was fed with hard stale bread which caused him to develop problems with his jaw to the extent that he found chewing food difficult. After fleeing he did not eat or touch bread. He said that whenever he heard the word 'bread' he felt pain in his jaw.
When Joseph was told about this group, he saw it as an opportunity to challenge himself to face this issue directly. Saba and Shamsi told me that initially he neither touched the dough nor attempted to bake bread. He just observed others. But later on he started playing with dough and slowly began making bread. The group helped Joseph to open up. He continues to receive therapy sessions from Freedom from Torture. The group functioned as an additional support and helped to become more vocal about his experiences. Joseph has a lifelong dream of being a maths teacher. He is now realising his aim by volunteering in school and has been offered a place at university to study teaching.
Another participant, Maryam, an Iranian survivor of torture in her late 50s, came to the UK together with her two sons to seek asylum after being tortured because of her political activities. One of her sons and her husband were arrested by the Iranian authorities and she has not seen them since. Maryam had never made bread before joining the group. Initially she found participating in the group difficult but slowly she started touching the dough, playing with it and making bread.
Saba and Shamsi say that it is possible to observe the changes in her mood through the loaves of bread she makes. Initially the bread was shapeless, flat and lifeless, but gradually she became more comfortable and creative adding different ingredients, seeds and herbs. The group also functioned as a space where she talks about her experiences and her family, particularly her son who she has not seen for 11 years. Maryam always believed that her son was still alive somewhere. One day she told the group that one of her other sons was going to Iran to find him. After a difficult period, they managed to find him in a mental health hospital. He could not talk or recognise them, but finding him and knowing for certain that he was alive had a significant impact on Maryam's healing process.
Saba explains, 'The group helped her to keep up her commitment and gave her the encouragement she needed to find him.'