Acupuncture helps residents cope in violent border city

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by ANGELA KOCHERGA

WFAA

Posted on September 23, 2012 at 10:01 PM

Updated Sunday, Sep 23 at 10:03 PM

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

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CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — A U.S. organization that trains volunteers to provide acupuncture in conflict zones worldwide has started a program in Ciudad Juarez for residents coping with chronic violence.

More than 10,000 people have been killed in the Mexican border city next to El Paso since 2008. And though murders have declined this year, many people are just beginning to deal with the trauma.

“I couldn’t sleep. I cried easily. I couldn’t eat,” said Monica Alvarez.

Since her uncle’s murder, Alvarez has suffered debilitating panic attacks. The mother of three children credits acupuncture for helping her cope with the stress, fear and trauma.

“One arrives tense,” said Alvarez clenching both her fists. But she said she leaves tranquil after getting acupuncture at her church.

The parish is located in a neighborhood ravaged by drug violence. Dozens of white paper doves pasted on a cross near the altar have the names of murder victims written on them. All lived in the area.

“We need still need to put more names on the cross,” said sister Rosario Cordoba, a nun at the church. 

After mass she and other volunteers stay behind to help survivors by administering simple acupuncture.

On a recent Sunday morning, 75 people sat quietly in pews as the volunteers applied needles to key points on their ears.

“This model has been implemented in various places around the world: refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border, Uganda for Kenyan refugees, the Gaza Strip, in places that have been affected by conflict and war as well as natural disasters, after Hurricane Katrina,” said Ryan Bemis, an acupuncturist who has a practice in nearby Las Cruces, New Mexico.

The protocol was developed by NADA, a non-profit national association that promotes acupuncture to help people deal with mental health issues including addiction and trauma.

Bemis spearheaded the Juarez initiative to bring acupuncture to neighborhoods battered by years of bloodshed.

He’s part of the team that trained 48 volunteers to provide the therapy since the program started. The group is raising funds to train more volunteers.

“It’s a technique designed to reduce stress and pressure in people who live in a climate of violence, “ said Maria Elizabeth Flores, a lawyer and human rights activist who founded Pastoral Obrera. The organization brought the therapy to neighborhood churches in low-income neighborhoods in Juarez.

Twenty Catholic parishes in Juarez now hold acupuncture “clinics.” The service is open to anyone, not just church members.

“This community needs healing, both those involved in the violence and the victims who have suffered," said Father Luis Escudero Gallo, the parish priest for the “Virgin of Faith” church. The church is the site of one of the acupuncture clinics.

Last month five people were gunned down around the corner from the church, including a 15-year-old boy.

Some of those who stayed after Sunday mass for acupuncture are regulars but others tried it for the first time, including Omar Santiago, 23. He was skeptical until the needles were placed on his ear.

“I came here filled with stress.” said Santiago. “Now, I feel calm.”

E-mail akocherga@belo.com

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