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Trauma Healing: Creative Open Spaces with Migrants and Refugees in motion.

Creative trauma healing spaces are peace activations meeting holistic human needs for healing and resilience for migrants in motion.

Photo of Monica Curca
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What problem does the idea help to solve and how does your solution work? (2,000 characters maximum)

Today more than 70 million persons are displaced, many are in motion, traveling in caravans or alone looking for freedom, safety or peace. NGOS, civil society and faith-based organizations have responded through two main channels to support migrant refugee in motion: 1. humanitarian aid response - food, water shelter 2. Advocacy, human rights, and legal support. After years of supporting migrants and refugees coming from Central America, we have seen that the work of building resilience and meeting human needs is often overlooked and missing. The current patterns of meeting the human needs, perhaps based on Maslo Triangle of Human needs do not center or meet the holistic needs of migrant refugees. Focusing first on the tangible human needs like food, shelter, water, safety or human rights has created a false dichotomy and denies the fact that to be whole people migrant refugees also need to have their non-tangible human needs. We agree with peace educator Paul K. Chappell, "Maslow’s hierarchy of needs neglects a basic truth of the human condition, which is that our nine non-physical needs (which include purpose and meaning, nurturing relationships, explanations, expression, inspiration, belonging, self-worth, challenge, and transcendence) help us fulfill our physical needs. When we have nurturing relationships based on trust, this helps us fulfill our physical need for safety, and cooking food for people and eating together can be motivated by our desire to nurture each other and to feel nurtured." By creating a third channel of support with migrant Refugees, Activate Labs builds peace through experiential and process design to build power with the powerless, creates open spaces along the migrant journeys using experiential design with public art, music, karaoke, dance parties, participatory theatre, participatory video, games, and more to bring ingredients for joy where migrant refugees can experience and lead their own healing and joy.

Geography of focus (500 characters)

For this project, we will focus on Migrant refugees that are coming to the US Southern Border, mostly from Central America, but also from many African, European and South American countries. Our work focuses on family and community units, often engaging children first as a channel to reach parents and whole families with resilience work.

Building Bridges: What bridge does your idea build between people on the move and neighbors towards a shared future of stability and promise? (500 characters)

Creative Trauma Healing Spaces builds bridges to create shared futures with migrant refugee internally, with communities they have left, within the community of migrant refugees and with communities where they hope to travel or migrate through. With a focus on trauma healing through creativity, bridges are built through the arts and music, universal methods of self-expression that all communities can embrace and understand.

What human need is your idea solving for? (1,000 characters)

Creative Trauma Healing Open Spaces with migrant refugees in motion focuses on the nontangible human needs. We use different methods and modalities as we focus on different human needs: 1. having a purpose and meaning even in the uncertainty and pain - using participatory storytelling methods to co-design meaning and purpose 2. fostering nurturing relationships: within and outside of their communities through spaces of trust and care 3. explanation: storytelling, analysis and drawing to define and explain violence and can be done to change 4.self-expression: using the arts and culture to make the invisible visible. 5.inspiration: co-imagining and co-creating shared futures 6. community and belonging 7. finding self-worth 8. embracing struggle and challenges as they are what builds our resilience 9. transcendence: using our moral imagination finding creative and transformative ways through trauma and violence.

What will be different within the community of focus as a result of implementing your idea? (1,000 characters)

We have facilitated more than 30 Creative Trauma Healing Open Spaces over the past year and a half. The impact on the community has been deep and more than we could have planned or imagined. We approach the healing spaces as an opportunity to co-design a shared future with migrants and migrant centered organizations. More than 10 projects have emerged from our engagements including training for shelter staff in Universal Protocols of trauma care, art programs have begun, artists within migrant communities have reported that because of the inspiration they have shifted the focus of their life back to the arts. We are currently developing a full length documentary with migrant refugees documented their migration from El Salvador to Washington D.C. We have fostered many power collaborations with Organizations in Mexico City, Tijuana, McAllen, Texas and Southern California. The partnerships/ outputs of the work have confirmed that a focus on nontangible human needs is vital and necessary.

What is the inspiration behind your idea? (1,000 characters)

The inspiration for the Creative Trauma Healing Open Spaces came as we worked with thousands and thousands of migrant and we wondered "who takes care of peoples souls." We saw time and again that children and adults often forwent comfort, food, and safety and chose self-expression, community and belonging each time. We saw that while humanitarian and human rights/legal support are vital, the institutionalizations and strategic approach to trauma healing is just as important and can actually help the other channels of support be better. This idea has been confirmed thousands of times over as migrant refugees have co-created their own spaces of healing and transformation with the ingredients for joy that we have brought.

Describe the dynamics of the community in which the idea is to be implemented. (1,000 characters)

We have facilitated Creative Trauma Healing Open Spaces with thousands of migrant refugees from all across Latin America, Russia, Africa, Caribean, India, China and many other places around the world. While we focus on the migration path from Central America to the US southern border we have worked with migrants at migrant detention centers, along border walls, in migrant shelters, migrant intake, and respite centers and more. We have worked with a wide range of communities - in McAllen, Texas with families separated by the zero-tolerance policy and in Mexico City with deportees, African migrant refugees. However, there have been key similarities in the communities, no matter where they have come from. Most have fled violence and oppression, most have complex trauma (domestic and community violence coupled with state or armed group violence), many are traveling in a community or with others that can provide accountability and support, most aspire to a better life and cannot return.

How does your idea leverage and empower community strengths and assets to help create an environment for success? (1,000 characters)

Few people have the resilience, creativity or moral imagination that migrant refugees possess. The miles they have crossed, the stories they have heard and felt, the suffering and oppression in their own countries all have created fertile ground for harnessing the power of storytelling and creativity to build resilience and community. Our Creative Trauma Healing open spaces are designed to be accessible and simple. They are experiential and participatory, while we come with paint, markers, boom box linked with music, coloring banners, posters, bracelets, videos, cameras etc. it is the migrant refugees that use them all in creative and interactive ways. One key factor to our work is that we do not mix it with humanitarian supplies or product distribution. Keeping these activities separate insures there are minimal transactional exchanges between our teams and those we serve. We then are just co-creating together sharing space and creating joy.

What other partners or stakeholders will work alongside you in implementing the idea, if any? (1,000 characters)

Creative Trauma Healing Open Spaces depend on our local partners and communities. We are currently partnering with Espacio Migrante, Los Otros Dreams, Cultiva Ya, Matthew 25:35 and many more across Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, US, and Honduras.

What part of the displacement journey is your solution addressing

  • Being on the move, crossing borders, and/or temporarily settled

Tell us how you'd describe the type of innovation you are proposing

  • Service: A new or enhanced service that creates value for end beneficiaries

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Majority Adoption: We have expanded the pilot significantly and the program product or service has been adopted by the majority of our intended user base (i.e. 50% to 83% of the target population or 50,000 to 1,000,000 users).

Group or Organization Name

Activate Labs

Tell us more about your group or organization [or lived experience as a displaced person?] (1000 characters)

Activate Labs leads community-focused projects that build bridges, heal trauma, and use story, art and culture to fight social exclusion and violence. We have ongoing projects such as the Beautiful Resistance and Refugees Welcome Guidebook and also support national campaigns in response to the current political and social environment in the United States of America and around the world. Our intersectional and grassroots-led work uses the arts, narrative change, participatory trauma-informed workshops and creativity to reframe the resistance into one of growth and peace.

Website URL:

Type of submitter

  • We are a registered Non-Profit Organization

Organization Headquarters: Country

The United States of America

Organization Headquarters: City / State

Takoma Park, Maryland


Join the conversation:

Photo of Uchenna Okafor

What a thoughtful idea! However, don't forget to include the physically challenged persons among the migrants and refugees in your design. Trust me, this group are most vulnerable of all in emergency and disaster situations. Meanwhile, with disability comes strong wave of innate resilience that simply need encouragement through support and reinforcement. So, exploiting and nurturing this resilience is all that disabled persons require for a new lease of life.

Photo of Ikong James

Hello @Monica Curca,

After reading through your idea, I noticed that our interactions with migrant and host communities are more similar than they differe and it's on this note that I would love to reach out for possible exchange programs to share experiences and lessons learnt along the way.

We are currently just starting our pilot project with " BOLD NATION AGENCY " that will be a social business under the organisation " Art for Social empowerment " in Uganda Africa. As an organisation we are focusing on using therapeutic arts activities to address the mental health needs of the communties we work with for a holistic positive change and impact.

I believe that this interaction will broden our scope of intervention with diverse communties and therefore inform and strengthen our activities.

Wishing you the best,

James Ikong