Dr. Carl Auerbach to Teach Psychology of Trauma at National University of Rwanda

Carl Auerbach, professor of psychology at the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology of Yeshiva University, has been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to teach courses in the psychology of trauma in the Department of Clinical Psychology at the National University of Rwanda.

Dr. Carl Auerbach has received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach the psychology of trauma in Rwanda.

Dr. Carl Auerbach has received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach the psychology of trauma in Rwanda.

Rwanda, home to nearly 11 million people, is an East Central African country about the size of Vermont. In 1996, between 800,000 and one million of its people, mostly from the minority Tutsi tribe, were brutalized by the majority Hutus.

“Western media often refer to the ‘Rwandan genocide,’ but in Rwanda, it’s called ‘the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda,’” said Dr. Auerbach.

According to Auerbach, the genocide was also a “gendercide”; while men, women and children were all killed, the women were often kept alive to be raped, brutalized or used as sex slaves. As a result, many of these women were infected with HIV and other sexual diseases, and had children born of these wartime rapes.

“Now, 17 years later, these women are left behind, marginalized by society, and have often lied to their children to avoid the stigma of their origins,” said Auerbach. “They are usually poor and with limited or no medical care. And the children, now 16 or 17 years old, don’t know who their fathers are.”

After the genocide ended, Rwanda went through a period of remarkably stable economic and social development, and it is now sometimes referred to as the Switzerland of Africa. Despite these advances, Rwanda is still a recovering society.

And this is where Auerbach hopes to make a difference. He has two clear goals for his fellowship, which will run from August to December 2011.

First, he wants to build a stronger foundation for dialogue between Western psychology and Rwandan psychology and in particular, a stronger connection between Yeshiva University and the National University of Rwanda.

“This isn’t an abstract connection,” said Auerbach. “It’s really between people in both places. It’s about creating a cultural dialogue.”

Auerbach cites this goal while acknowledging a major challenge posed by his work: Western psychology isn’t immediately applicable to Rwandan culture.

“Trauma in the West tends to be viewed individually, but Rwanda is a collective society. Our methods aren’t really adaptive to this situation and we want to find ways where we can help.”

Auerbach’s second goal is to ensure that whatever progress can be made in this area is sustainable. “In terms of mental health, we in the West tend to view others as ‘those poor natives we can save’ rather than trying to build a sustainable system.”

Auerbach said it is important to ensure that humanitarian aid in any form doesn’t create dependency, so his teaching and research will focus on a different model: capacity building. “We want to help train the next generation of Rwandan trauma psychologists. We must focus on helping Rwandans help themselves.”

When asked what inspired him to apply for the fellowship, Auerbach cited a list that began with Ferkauf colleague Lata McGinn referring him to Samantha Power’s book A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, which discusses disturbing trends in the United States’ response to genocide in the 20th century. He also credited Sonia Suchday for encouraging him to shift his focus from psychology to global health and expressed his gratitude to Abe Givner, for his support; his research associate and student, Denise Sandole; and to his long term friend and colleague, Louise Silverstein.

Auerbach also spoke of the constant encouragement provided by Ferkauf Dean Lawrence Siegel and Associate Dean Michael Gill as well as funding from Yeshiva University Provost Mort Lowengrub, all of which allowed him to travel to Rwanda over the last two years.

“While the fellowship will give me a chance to establish a more systematic approach, all of these people have been instrumental. It’s important to realize that any international work is a collective enterprise, and I really am grateful to both Ferkauf and the University to help make this possible.”

“I am very excited that Carl has received the Fulbright Fellowship, which is the first Fulbright that Ferkauf has received in 20 years,” said Dean Siegel. “I think I speak for all of the Ferkauf community when I say that we are proud of his accomplishment and look forward to hearing about his work in Rwanda.”