Story by Jim Bishop
Brenda C. Fairweather wanted to respond in some way to a hostage crisis in Russia in which more than 300 civilians eventually lost their lives.
On Sept. 1, 2004, terrorists linked to the Chechen independence struggle took more than 1,200 people hostage in a school in the town of Beslan. Shootings and bombings on the final day of the standoff left 186 children among the casualties.
Fairweather, the administrative assistant for the master of arts in counseling program at Eastern Mennonite University, created a homemade basket from dyed reeds, complete with a grapevine handle, as she prayed for the many people directly affected by the event.
Three years later, she was able to give this symbol of her care to a delegation of Russians during a week long visit in Harrisonburg to learn about ways to address psychological trauma on a community-wide level.
Fairweather gave her basket to the group at the close of an interchange with faculty members of the master of arts in counseling program on Wednesday. It will be given to a mother in Beslan whose daughter was killed at the school.
“It was an incredible experience to meet these wonderful people and to sit in their meeting with my EMU colleagues,” Fairweather said. “They were visibly moved by this gesture.”
All four of delegation members – Liudmila Nikolayevna Domashenko, Fatima Aleksandrovna Berezova, Naida Muratovna Vagabova, and Vladimir Nikolayevich Rud – are mental health professionals, some of whom worked with survivors of the three-day Beslan school hostage crisis, one of the most horrific terrorist incidents in recent history. All work with children or young people in Russia.
Asked what has impressed him most in his brief time in the community, Vladimir Rud said through an interpreter. “The people we’ve met. They are open and caring. It has been interesting to hear about practical techniques and methods used in mental health treatment here.”
“I appreciated the opportunity to stay with local families,” said Liudmila Domashenko. “I realized how quickly language barriers can be overcome in these kind of settings.”
During the week, the delegation attended sessions in EMU’s STAR (Seminars on Trauma Awareness and Resilience) program, met with faculty in the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding and conferred with mental-health specialists at Rockingham Memorial Hospital.
“We were asked by the National Peace Foundation, organizers of the Open World Program, to give this Russian delegation broad exposure to the work being done by the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding on community mental-health issues,” said Amy Potter, a CJP administrator and organizer of the local visit.
From EMU, the group headed to Mennonite Central Committee in Akron, Pa., to learn more about how the Amish community responded to the school shooting on Oct. 6, 2006, in which five Amish girls were killed.
The sponsor of this visit, the Open World Leadership Center, is housed at the Library of Congress. Founded in 1999 by the U.S. Congress, the Open World Program has brought more than 10,500 people from Russia, Lithuania, the Ukraine and Uzbekistan to sites in all 50 states. Delegates range from mayors to journalists, from nonprofit directors to small-business owners, from political activists to high-court judges.
Jim Bishop is a regular contributor to The Augusta Free Press.