After Trauma, Hope

photo of Ferdowsian’s book, <em>Phoenix Zones: Where Strength Is Born and Resilience Lives</em>

In a time when secondhand suffering as a caregiver can lead to vicarious trauma, Hope Ferdowsian, MD, MPH, adjunct associate professor of microbiology and immunology at the School of Medicine, wants to reframe perspectives. By studying the science of surviving and thriving despite trauma, she says, not only can people experience vicarious resilience, but they can also steward societal progress.

Ferdowsian’s book, Phoenix Zones: Where Strength Is Born and Resilience Lives, explores places that foster the recovery of human and nonhuman animals who have lived through unimaginable physical, psychological, and emotional pain. These healing sanctuaries or “phoenix zones” are cultivated across the world, such as the Global Sanctuary for Elephants in Brazil, the Warrior and Wolves project in Los Padres National Forest, California, Sisu Youth homeless shelter in Oklahoma, and Farm Sanctuary in upstate New York. Ferdowsian profiles each place through narratives of individuals affected by the sanctuaries, and binds the phoenix zones together with a common set of foundational principles: respect for liberty and sovereignty, commitment to love and tolerance, promotion of justice, and the fundamental belief that each individual possesses dignity.

The people and animals that Ferdowsian met on her worldwide travels as an advocate inspired this book, but one key idea coalesced during Ferdowsian’s work on the Hilltop: as a physician evaluating the visible and invisible scars of asylum seekers and refugees, Ferdowsian says she has come to see the principles at the heart of Georgetown’s mission—freedom, compassion, and justice—as biological needs that humans share neurologically with other animals. When humans witness or assist the fulfillment of these needs, through acts of kindness and justice, the reward and pleasure areas of our brains activate, making future acts of kindness and justice more likely.

“Kindness and justice can be contagious,” she says.

The book is a resource for people who wish to learn about the structural ties between violence against animals and human beings, and how to foster more interconnected healing across species and communities.

Caring for survivors of trauma can help break the cycle of violence, trauma, and suffering, Ferdowsian says. “By learning from the experiences of survivors, we can all become more resilient and compassionate.” n

— Kate Colwell