Violence – inflicted upon humans and other living creatures – lies at the heart of Phoenix Zones: Where Strength is Born and Resilience Lives, a new book by Hope Ferdowsian, MD, MPH, associate professor in UNM’s Division of General Internal Medicine.
Ferdowsian, who has spent much of her career helping asylum seekers and sexual assault victims living in conflict zones, has witnessed firsthand the horrific toll that violence exacts. And yet, as the book’s title suggests, she also finds cause for optimism in the surprising capacity that many victims have to recover from and even thrive in the face of the trauma they have suffered.
“For the majority of my career I feel I’ve been chasing the consequences of violence, and one of the things I wanted to do with the book is think about what we can do to prevent violence before it happens,” says Ferdowsian, who is a double-board certified fellow of the American College of Physicians and the American College of Preventive Medicine.
“I found the semblance of an answer in a somewhat surprising place – among survivors that I’ve cared for through the years,” she says. “I realized that I was seeing this phenomenon – what’s known in medical circles as the “Phoenix Effect.” And then I realized it was also found in animals.”
Evoking the image of the mythical bird that rises from the ashes, Ferdowsian describes Phoenix Zones as places of refuge, where the victims of violence gain some respite from their suffering and undertake the process of recovery.
She takes her readers on a globe-trotting journey that ranges from conflict-torn Eastern Congo, where women routinely are raped by marauding soldiers, to shelters for homeless and abused children and rural refuges in the U.S. that provide sanctuary for former circus elephants and chimpanzees.
“Freedom offers a chance for rebirth for many survivors – for the Phoenixes they rise to become,” Ferdowsian writes. “Through my work with animals, I began to gradually understand the biological basis of this change. I realized how basic liberties are foundational to the Phoenix Effect and creating the Phoenix Zones where survivors can thrive.”
Ferdowsian traces her passion for preventing suffering back to her childhood. “I grew up on a small farm in rural Oklahoma,” she says. “I grew up around animals, and like most kids I didn’t compartmentalize.”
Her father, who immigrated from Iran and met her mother in Oklahoma, eventually helped his extended family come here as refugees. “My parents were human rights advocates,” she says. “Growing up, I learned about human rights violations around the world.”
Ferdowsian studied biology and bioethics at the University of Southern California and pursued her medical degree at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine. She spent a year-long internship at Yale University-Griffin Hospital, then completed a preventive medicine and public health residency at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and an internal medicine residency at The George Washington University Medical Center.
Before moving to New Mexico in 2015 with her husband, Ferdowsian spent most of her career on the East Coast. For a time, she worked in community-based clinics in Washington, D.C., serving homeless, underinsured and immigrant patients and she became involved with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a nongovernmental organization of health professionals, attorneys and other supporters advocating for human rights across the world.
Ferdowsian took part in the group’s asylum program, in which physicians, psychologists and other professionals conduct pro bono exams of people to see if they have medical findings that are consistent with torture. She is also a paid consultant in the PHR program to address the problem of sexual violence (primarily directed toward women and children) in conflict zones throughout Africa, South America and the Middle East.
Ferdowsian repeatedly reminds readers that animals share with humans key qualities of self-awareness and the capacity for suffering when subjected to pain or confinement. Cultivating an awareness of and empathy for their plight helps awaken one’s capacity for caring for other people, she suggests.
And acting from that awareness might entail “refusing to support industries that violate the freedom and sovereignty of humans and animals or deny them justice and the opportunity to live up to their full potential,” she argues. Instead, “we can support businesses and activities that foster love and dignity.”
Ferdowsian knows that what she is proposing is no easy task. “One of the challenges we face now is there are so many distractions,” she says. “The political distractions, what comes through the news every night – it can be overwhelming.”
“My concern is that we will become wrapped up in whatever crisis is right in front of us, instead of looking at the bigger picture,” she says. “The other thing I’m hoping to do with the book is say, ‘Hey, we should take the opportunity to take a deeper look.’”