Psychosocial and psychotherapeutic support services in Peru

" I was able to learn so much from people who had far fewer opportunities than I had but who seized them – very often with a smile on their face."

Anamaria Silva-Saavedra is psychologist and psychotherapist. She was deployed by DÜ/BfdW from 2007 to 2014 as a professional peace worker in Ayacucho and Lima in Peru. Together with the NGO Paz y Esperanza, she developed and implemented support services for women who had been victims of violence during the civil war. Her work included providing psychosocial and psychotherapeutic services, training local therapists and researching the impact of violence on mental health. She was involved in the creation of a virtual network for mental health and a culture of peace, which provides services for people affected by conflict as well as information on self-care and psychological trauma for professionals. The network also works on the prevention of violence in the community.

Anamaria Silva-Saavedra lives with her family in Bad Honnef and works for the Landschaftsverband Rheinland (Rhineland Regional Council).

Ms Silva-Saavedra, you have worked for seven years in Peru as a professional development worker. What were your motives for choosing this path?

I came to Germany in 1974 as a child in a family exiled from Chile. I already got involved in solidarity work with Latin America when I was 11 years old. It began with us selling empanadas at events to raise money for a children's project in Puerto Mont in Chile. Later I organised group visits to Latin America. And I worked for the Third World House in Bielefeld, which sponsored projects in Nicaragua. My motivation for undertaking development service in Peru grew out of this solidarity work.

And development service was an especially good opportunity for me as a Chilean living in exile. I was not allowed to live in Chile for political reasons. The development service enabled me to develop my Latin American identity through deployment in a neighbouring country, in Peru.

Anamaria Silva-Saavedra speaks with women from a Peruvian mountain village about forming a self-help group.

You were accompanied by your family in Peru. How did your children experience returning to Germany?

Our children were 16, nine, and four years old, when we came back. They had felt comfortable and very much at home in Peru. So returning to Germany was difficult for them. My 16-year-old daughter accused us of driving her out of her home. Our nine-year-old daughter felt more like a Peruvian. And the little one missed the nursery, her nanny, and the whole environment. They would have been happy for us to continue living in Peru. It took about two or three years altogether for the children to settle in here in the Rhineland.

Basically, my children were little Peruvians when they arrived here. But they have come to terms with living in Germany now. We have worked hard to create a good living environment for them here. But Peru still plays a big role in their lives. My son still often wants Peruvian food, for example. They have a kind of Peruvian-Chilean identity. They don’t feel like they’re Germans. They feel that they don’t really belong to any particular culture.

There is one special aspect to all of this for us: I am a Chilean living in exile. You can tell this from looking at me and my children – our dark eyes and dark hair, for example. Here in Germany, we are often confronted by racist stereotypes. This is hard on the children and leads them to feeling alienated and that they are not at home here in Germany. It wasn’t at all like that in Peru.

But, all things considered, I have to say that we are now based here in Germany, and we value that a lot. In Germany the rule of law prevails, and it is a very safe country. Here the children can walk round to their friends on the spur of the moment. Or they can go off to take part in sport. In Peru they had to go everywhere by taxi to be sure that they would be safe. And German society is so much more democratic and participative than in Peru or Chile, …

What was your own experience of returning to Germany – as regards both private and professional life?

It was difficult for us to get back into work. Neither my husband nor I could easily find suitable jobs that were also family-friendly. At first, I had to commute two hours every day to my new job in a hospital. This cost a lot of time and energy, which was needed for the family - to help the children through the return process, for example.

When I was about to begin my development service, I had opportunities to be trained in therapeutic management here in Germany. Or I could have launched my own practice. When I returned to Germany, I had to step back onto the career ladder a few rungs down, so to speak. This set me back in my career and also had significant financial consequences.

I am a psychologist and psychotherapist with a focus on psychotraumatology and neuropsychology. This meant that I had been working in psychiatric clinics, and I wanted to go back to that again. When I returned, I spent some time looking for work and eventually found a job that matched me and my qualifications, but, as I mentioned earlier, it was an hour’s drive away. I worked there for three years. This put a huge strain on us as a family with three children.

Teaching breathing exercises in the village of Cuchoquesera in the Peruvian highlands.

How did your career develop after that?

Now I’m working for the Landschaftsverband Rheinland (Rhineland Regional Council). The council is responsible for - among other things - municipal tasks in the fields of health, social services, and culture and this includes victim compensation schemes.

In Peru I worked for and with victims of civil war, and here I’m also working on the development of services for victims of violence. At the Rhineland Regional Council, I’m responsible as a consultant for the quality improvement of trauma outpatient clinics in accordance with the Victim Compensation Act.

Have you brought skills with you from your time in Peru that are of value to you in your profession today?

Yes, most certainly! For one thing, I learned not to focus primarily on what is lacking, but rather to identify what resources are available and work out how to make the best of things. During my development service I also recognised very clearly the value of horizontal structures and an orientation towards teamwork. If I'm new somewhere, I don't tell myself: "Now it’s up to me to come and tell people what to do on the basis of my expert knowledge.” Instead, I ask questions, listen, and try to understand why other people are behaving in the way that they do. It is important to me to appreciate people in what they do, even if at first glance I would approach things in a completely different way. Now I can put this approach to very good use in the work that I’m doing today in a large organisation.

If you look back over your development service, what is your overall assessment?

Looking at development cooperation as an institution, I think there’s quite a lot that one could criticise. There are high expectations as regards meeting people as equals and engaging in partnership. And yet I sensed very clearly that some people had rather more power than others. It’s the people who provide the money who lay down the rules and regulations and decide how things are to be done. In my experience, it is often the donor countries that have the authority to define the programme.

When I take stock of the situation, the term "development service" poses a big question for me: Who, exactly, is being developed? This is how I see it: Basically, I was the one who was “developed” by the people of Peru, who were examples to me in the way they led their lives. I was able to learn so much from people who had far fewer opportunities than I had but who seized them – very often with a smile on their face. I have learned to be thankful and not to focus on negative aspects so much. My personal assessment is therefore very positive, because I was able to experience these people, who simply know how to make the best of life. I could observe how they view life. And, because I'm curious, I really liked the stories that people there have to tell. They are not always nice stories, but they are true stories about real life.

The interview was conducted as part of the AGdD Tracer Study 2022 for the publication "Die Welt im Gepäck. Returned professionals from the development service in the years 2011-2022". The interview was conducted by Dieter Kroppenberg.

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