Crossing borders

Columbia psychologist pursues teenage
dream of giving international aid
Tuesday, January 6, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:21 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Pictures and artifacts from around the world line the walls just inside the front hall of Barbara Bauer’s southwest Columbia home. She has had to add pages to her passport, which has been stamped in many places — including Bosnia, Kosovo, Pakistan, Israel, Albania and Afghanistan.

Bauer, a psychologist, began volunteering for humanitarian missions with the MU International Center for Psychosocial Trauma in 1994. Her work — helping people who have been traumatized by war or abuse — took her to many war-torn countries, usually for no longer than 10 days or two weeks. Then Bauer would return to Columbia and her private practice.

It had always been a dream of Bauer’s to embark on a long-term humanitarian mission. Last year she got her chance when Doctors Without Borders, an organization that sends physicians to places where medical care is in short supply, dispatched Bauer to Nepalgunj, Nepal, for five months.

In Nepal, Bauer worked through a non-governmental organization called Saathi to help women who had been victims of domestic and sexual abuse. At the shelter supported by Saathi, Bauer trained volunteers in simple intervention techniques to deal with severe psychological trauma.

“Someday I wanted to do something like that,” Bauer said.

Bauer’s initial interest in long-term humanitarian work began in her early teens when she read Thomas Dooley’s book “The Night They Burned the Mountain” about medical missions in Cambodia. After graduating in 1984 with a doctoral degree in counseling psychology, Bauer opened her own practice in Columbia. She had a family — a son and a daughter to care for — which kept her from following her teenage dream.

In 1994, Bauer met Syed Arshad Husain, founder and director of MUICPT, and began volunteering for short trips.

Near the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip, the MUICPT volunteers were evacuated from their hotels three times. One night the Israeli Army attacked the area and destroyed the building next to the one in which they trained. In Bosnia, the majority of the country’s children had been traumatized during the

civil war by bombings, relocation, food shortages, freezing cold with no heat and witnessing abuse.

“Even though I saw it on TV, it was a shock to witness it in person,” Bauer said.

War and chaos presented unique challenges for the MUICPT volunteers, who travel in teams. Bauer’s friend and colleague, Venetta Whitaker, a retired MU education professor, said flexibility and resourcefulness are important. Bauer’s ability to work not only creatively, but also with compassion, was obvious, she said.

“She is a very talented person — a mix of with talent with caring,” said Whitaker, who works with MUICPT.

Bauer specializes in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, a nontraditional technique that, administered in phases, helps the brain process past and present experiences. Patients are taught to recall traumatic memories while simultaneously focusing on an external stimulus, such as a moving object or alternating taps on the knee. Bauer has used the technique for the last 10 years.

Husain has watched Bauer work with severely traumatized people suffering from nightmares and flashbacks from having witnessed the death of loved ones or the sudden disappearance of their families.

“A few sessions of EMDR helped them get over the gory images,” Husain said. “It is dramatically effective.”

A nine-year veteran of MUICPT, Bauer still wished she could visit a country and stay for longer than the typical 10- to 14-day mission. It wasn’t until her children married, followed by the sudden death of her husband 2 ½ years ago, that Bauer found herself free to consider working on a longer-term humanitarian aid project through Doctors Without Borders.

Nepal, like other places Bauer has visited, is in a civil war; the Nepali government and Chinese Maoists are both trying to gain control of the country.

Nepal is historically patriarchal, Bauer said, with a tradition of gender inequalities and abuse. A study done by Saathi in 1996 reported that 80 percent of women in Nepal have been victims of domestic abuse, including sexual abuse.

When Bauer arrived in Nepal in June 2003, women would come to the shelter at Saathi but were not well enough to leave.

“People came and stayed. Their trauma wasn’t being addressed,” Bauer said.

Bauer worked with volunteers, teaching them basic intervention techniques to use with the traumatized women. She was also invited into women’s homes for meals.

“People were friendly and welcoming,” Bauer said. “They made me a part of their families.”

Back home in Columbia, Bauer is making preparations to return to her private practice after a sabbatical in Nepal. She has sent out postcards and put an ad in the newspaper. She expects her practice to remain open for the next couple of years, leaving her time for future humanitarian work.

“I don’t make long-term commitments,” Bauer said.

The return from her trip to Nepal has fulfilled one of Bauer’s lifelong goals.

“It is a satisfying thing to live out a dream,” she said. “I feel I can go any where in the world and handle any situation.”

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