The Chance to Heal

It’s a typical Chicago neighborhood. You have to look hard for the old convent with the solid oak front door, nestled among the apartment buildings on the tree-lined street. The people who come here are from all corners of the world and speak many languages – and they come to this place for many things.

Some come looking for reprieve, some seeking solace. Eventually, many find healing.

Mario Gonzalez has experienced much in life – he’s travelled the world, studied holistic approaches to healing, and educated himself to the highest levels. Today he is the Clinical Supervisor at the Marjorie Kovler Center, one of the first-ever facilities dedicated to treating survivors of torture and an organization he helped build.

Torture – and those who have experienced it – has long been a part of Mario’s world. Born and raised in Guatemala, he experienced a society split by a decades-long civil war and where trust was rare. People vanished, sometimes for good. If they did come back, they returned changed. These people were his friends, his family, his brothers and sisters.

Witnessing the struggles of those around him fostered Mario’s interest in psychology. He wanted to learn how the brain worked; how anxiety, trauma, depression all seemed to manipulate the mind. He was only two years into university when people began to come to him for help.

“I didn’t know what to do, really. I was no expert, but I did see that these people needed help. These people trusted me in a country where the walls had ears, and I had to do the best I could. So I listened.”

When Mario finished university, he visited his sister in Chicago. She was building a life in the city as a human rights advocate amidst the steady stream of Guatemalans coming to the US in an attempt to escape the violence.

Through his sister, people once again started approaching Mario for help. He soon realized that they were suffering in the same familiar way as his friends back home while also facing the challenges of adapting to life in a new country.

“All of a sudden, I had 20 people who needed help. They were suffering through nightmares, insomnia, substance abuse – they were all suffering from PTSD.”

With so much work to be done, Mario felt called to stay in Chicago. It was through this work that Mario came to know Heartland Alliance. The organization had begun to provide mental health services to survivors of torture and was having a difficult time reaching and gaining the trust of individuals who had fled Central and South America.

“People from Guatemala and similar countries have a lack of trust of institutions – many places in their home countries were full of intelligence agents.”

And so an agreement was made. Mario would bring the people, and the budding Kovler Center would provide a safe space for survivors to gather and the expertise to address their needs. Mario has been conducting therapy sessions for the Kovler Center ever since – sessions that reignite dignity and hope in those who need it most.

And it’s working.

It is hard not to notice that most of the people walking through the Kovler Center are smiling. It’s certainly not expected of people who have gone through such horrific experiences. When asked about this strange dichotomy, Mario replies with a somber look.

“You should see them when they first arrive.”

He then refers to a man who had smiled and nodded an emphatic hello on his way to his case managers’ office.

“When I first met that man, he could not stop shaking. He could not stop crying. It takes a lot of work to build trust with someone, to heal.”

That same day, the man learned that he had been granted asylum. He would no longer live in fear of being sent back to his torturers. He could now look toward a new future of healing and opportunity.

“Thank you,” he said confidently as he shook Mario’s hand.