Language, Culture, & Identity as Tools for Healing

Blog Header 1024x512 (2)Recovering from trauma is a complex process dependent on the restoration of a survivor’s psychological, emotional, social, and behavioral health. Undoubtedly, this process requires comprehensive support through trained professionals, evidence-based practices, and trauma-informed activities to help survivors come to terms with their experiences, learn to address the life-long effects of trauma, and move forward with their lives.


Restorative aftercare for human trafficking survivors necessarily involves each of these elements due to the complexity, severity, and longevity of many survivors’ traumatic experiences. However, the current landscape of survivor care in the United States largely misses the importance of language, culture, and sense of self when supporting survivors of minority backgrounds. Healing from a trafficking experience is not a simple task, and it is made all the more difficult when a survivor is trying to do so in an environment in which they do not feel comfortable and struggle to communicate.


As our country continues to grow in diversity, the anti-trafficking field must learn to better support survivors from many different cultures and emphasize holistic healing in their own language. Providing high-quality care for trafficking survivors cannot exclude those who do not speak a certain language or connect with a specific culture. It is vital for the success of our collective mission that we take concrete steps to create opportunities for all survivors.


Why Does Identity Matter for Healing?

Identity can be described as the collection of memories, experiences, relationships, beliefs, and values that support an individual’s sense of self. A strong identity creates a largely unchanging idea of who one is over time, even as new experiences, relationships, and memories are added. An individual’s identity often influences the way they see the world, how they interact with people, and what they choose to be involved in. Additionally, developing an authentic sense of self is a cornerstone of mental well-being, including a person’s self-esteem, psychological health, and resilience to challenges.


Language and culture often make up a significant portion of a person’s sense of self. On a large scale, groups who share a common culture or language often also share some behavioral traits and a manner of interacting with the world around them. This can create a sense of connection to each other, even if they are strangers. Shared culture or language inherently supports an individual’s sense of belonging to a certain group and offers a stable reference point for cultural identity. 


However, trauma can profoundly disrupt an individual's sense of self. People who have experienced trauma often report an inability to dismiss thoughts that reflect negative core beliefs about themselves — like feeling broken, objectified, or unable to understand who they are anymore. Several recent studies suggest that trauma may also have lasting somatic effects, leaving people experiencing physical pain or discomfort with no clear source. Many people who have experienced severe trauma struggle with feelings of disembodiment or dissociation in their daily lives.


Survivors of human trafficking regularly report severely traumatic experiences, including physical and sexual violence, ongoing abuse by multiple perpetrators, and forced participation in humiliation. 95% of sex trafficking survivors say they experienced at least one form of physical violence while being exploited, with individual survivors reporting an average of six of the twelve forms of common violence. These abuses often included being raped, beaten, strangled, threatened with a weapon, or forced to record violent scenes for pornography. 


For many survivors, experiencing trauma was a reality even before commercial sexual exploitation. Between 70 and 90% of women and children who are trafficked for sex report being sexually abused earlier in life. Even after exiting trafficking, survivors continue to suffer from psychological health problems at extremely high rates. On average, a survivor is diagnosed with ten psychological conditions ranging from severe anxiety disorders to complex PTSD to dissociative or depersonalization disorders. Most survivors also face the physical health consequences of their experiences, which often include chronic pain, memory loss, heart conditions, and cancers.


The trauma that trafficking survivors endure is both extensive and severe. It is no mystery, then, why such a large proportion of survivors report losing their sense of identity and their ability to connect with past memories. Many survivors struggle to form healthy relationships with other people and often report feeling numb, disconnected, and misunderstood. Each of these challenges presents significant barriers in a survivor’s healing journey through long-term restorative care, which regularly emphasizes rebuilding relationships, sharing experiences, and collectively healing with other survivors.


Survivors who speak a different language or represent a different culture from the people around them face even greater barriers to healing. On a basic level, it is incredibly draining to communicate about daily life activities when a survivor must first translate other people’s words to their language and then translate their response. This process can take far longer than the conversational space allows, leaving the survivor feeling left behind, ignored, and isolated. 


Not speaking the same language well can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to share about their life before exploitation or any of their traumatic experiences due to limited vocabulary. Using their primary language allows survivors to express themselves fully and minimizes the frustration of being unable to communicate or process verbally with other survivors, creating healthy solidarity and connection.


Even if a survivor is comfortable communicating through a non-primary language, being isolated from their culture poses separate challenges to their healing journey. Culture is central to a survivor’s sense of identity and likely plays a significant role in some of their most treasured memories and experiences. Because trauma affects a survivor’s ability to trust their sense of self and belonging, incorporating elements of their culture often provides a connection to their childhood identity and offers a much-needed element of comfort and stability. This can be as simple as making a favorite childhood food or celebrating a cultural holiday. These connection points often are highly effective at helping a survivor feel more comfortable and welcome in their environment.


How Should Restorative Care Incorporate Cultural Support?

For direct service providers in the anti-trafficking field, limited funding can make it seem impossible to effectively support a survivor who speaks a different language or represents a different culture. In the current landscape of survivor care, however, there are so few options for language- or culture-specific safe house programs that survivors can be left behind or without any resources all too easily.


It is vitally important that the anti-trafficking field as a whole moves toward more culturally inclusive aftercare. In the meantime, however, implementing a few supportive practices can make restorative aftercare more achievable for these survivors and more sustainable for programs.

  • Ask community members who speak the language to volunteer.

It is easy for programs with very limited funding and no staff members who speak other languages to feel as if they are unable to offer services to some survivors. There will certainly be challenges to communication, but asking a community member who is able to speak a survivor’s primary language to spend regular time with them can be a highly impactful first step. Even if this time is weekly or bi-weekly, having that simple language connection can make a survivor feel noticed, valuable, and more comfortable in their cross-cultural environment.

  • Train staff members on cross-cultural best practices.

For people who have never lived in an environment where their language is not spoken and their culture is not represented, it is difficult to understand how draining daily activities can be. The process of translating and re-translating every conversation, eating different foods, and trying to fit in with new people can be overwhelming for survivors in cross-cultural restorative care.

It is important for staff members to be aware of the challenges these survivors face on a daily basis. Making a conscious effort to leave space in conversations for translation, asking about favorite types of food, and celebrating cultural events with a survivor can make a significant difference in their comfort with the people, conversations, and activities around them. For many survivors, having their culture acknowledged and shared is just as impactful for connection as speaking the same language.

  • Understand the difference between hiring an interpreter and a staff member who happens to speak the same language.

Interpreters are trained to become the voice of a survivor, not their spokesperson. They are capable of conveying the survivor’s genuine thoughts without taking the attention and emphasis away from the individual as a participant in the conversation. Even when a misunderstanding occurs, interpreters focus on representing the survivor accurately rather than inserting their own clarifications.


In contrast, direct care staff may be able to speak the same language as a survivor, but often lack the additional interpreting training needed to represent the survivor as effectively as an official interpreter. This difference may seem subtle, but it is important for a survivor’s sense of identity, autonomy, and significance to be treated as an equal participant in multi-language conversations. While staff members are capable of learning to do so, interpreters are trained to prevent both parties from using them as a third person in the conversation, empowering the survivor and the other speaker to work through the language barrier and strive to understand each other more fully.


This is particularly important in therapy settings, where understanding and emphasizing the experience of the survivor is the most important task. Interpreters are skilled in facilitating intensive conversations while remaining neutral, largely through intentional body language and speaking choices. Speaking quietly, sitting behind the client, and interpreting precisely what each speaker is communicating all contribute significantly to a survivor’s experience in therapy where a language barrier exists.


In many daily activities, a staff member who speaks the same language as a survivor is likely fully capable of supporting that survivor’s experience in restorative care. Programs should not refuse placement to a survivor who uses a different primary language because they are unable to hire a full-time interpreter, but it is important to recognize that a survivor’s access to certain activities and treatment can be limited without access to trained interpretation services. 

  • Make a consistent, intentional effort to connect with survivors through their language and culture.

For many survivors, living in an environment that reflects their culture is not as important as the people around them taking intentional steps to appreciate and experience their culture. Programs considering serving survivors of different cultures should begin by asking those survivors what their priorities are — Is it important to them that someone in the program is able to speak their primary language? What cultural holidays, traditions, or events would they like to celebrate while living in the program? What favorite meals and music can the staff incorporate into the schedule?


Most programs can adequately support survivors in cross-cultural environments by simply engaging in their cultural activities with them. Asking to learn words in their language, making foods from their culture, and listening to music in their language may seem like small, unimportant steps, but these efforts are often all a survivor needs to feel welcome, supported, and cared for in cross-cultural restorative care.


Fostering a culturally responsive approach throughout the anti-trafficking field is vital to ensuring equitable support for all survivors of exploitation. By acknowledging and participating in diverse cultural practices with survivors, direct care programs will create healing environments where survivors feel validated, understood, and supported by the people around them, even if they don’t speak the same language or represent the same culture. Embracing cultural diversity strengthens the effectiveness and impact of survivor aftercare, ultimately contributing to greater healing and restoration for survivors of human trafficking.


To learn more about the power of identity, language, and culture in healing for survivors, listen to the Empowering Inclusivity webinar episode from Safe House Project.

Healing, Overcoming Trauma, Child Sex Trafficking

Recent Posts

See All