Helping Survivors Find Meaning in Trauma | Dr. Ani Kalayjian

Trauma is a silent epidemic that affects millions of people around the world. In times of natural disasters, armed conflict, mass shootings, humanitarian crises or interpersonal violence, the aftermath can leave individuals and sometimes communities with deep emotional scars. To help survivors transform their suffering and find resilience, psychologist Dr. Ani Kalayjian founded the international non-governmental organization MeaningfulWorld.

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Dr. Ani Kalayjian MeaningfulWorld

Dr. Kalayjian leading a physical release session via Soul-Surfing movements in Rwanda after the Rwandan Genocide

Dr. Kalayjian is an Armenian-American psychologist, author, international consultant, researcher, and poet. Currently a psychology professor at Columbia University, her lifelong interest in healing trauma stems from the generational trauma she inherited.

Dr. Kalayjian was born in Syria—a nation in upheaval at the time and continues to be due to political conflicts in the region. Her family had their own history of trauma, with her father being a survivor of the 1915 Armenian Genocide committed by The Ottoman Turks. Over 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered during the systematic extermination and mass death marches of the region’s Indigenous Armenian population.

Like more than 97% of Armenians, her family was also Christian, making them a religious minority in a predominantly Muslim population. “Armenia was the first nation to accept Christianity as their state religion in 301 A.D.,” Dr. Kalayjian says.

Surrounded by instability and some degree of isolation, Dr. Kalayjian could sense the suffering of others from a young age.

“As early as age eight, I was able to recognize the human rights violations towards me and others throughout Syria. Trauma was something that became inherited, and the need for emotional support was necessary from an early age.”

She also witnessed inequities based on gender. Her brothers, for instance, had more freedom than she did; they could play outdoors or ride their bikes. “I had to stay home and learn a lot of domestic duties like cooking and needlepoint,” she says.

“I found it illogical and was always questioning, why? My mother was also a victim, who was married off at 15 and made to be a servant to her in-laws. So, when I would question why my brothers could do certain things that I wasn’t allowed to, the answer was always, ‘because they’re boys.’ It never made sense to me, even as a child.”

At the age of 16, Dr. Kalayjian immigrated to America with her family, which is a decision she says saved her life. She was told that her defiance against the prevalent social and cultural norms in Syria would have resulted in her death or imprisonment had she remained in the country. She was a woman who “asked too many questions” and spoke truth to power.

After enrolling in high school as a junior, she passed her math, chemistry, and physics exams. However, she struggled with the English language and U.S. history. Other kids also ostracized and bullied her for being different; they would tell her to go back to her country on a boat, “even though I flew to New York,” she says.

Dr. Kalayjian’s mother instilled the value and power of education into her from a very young age, homeschooling her until the first grade. She grew up knowing that if you are educated, no one can steal that knowledge from you. “No enemy, nor any natural nor human-made disasters,” she says. This idea helped Dr. Kalayjian carry forward as a student and eventually excel academically, achieving the highest grades in her classes later in her educational journey.

She knew all along that she wanted to help others, and psychology seemed like the perfect occupational path to do exactly that.

“The way in which we feel and respond to our emotions and trauma, inherited, individual, collective, or secondary, impacts the ways we grow as humans. I not only wanted to learn more about that process but help others learn about themselves and nurture and utilize their emotional intelligence to be the best version of themselves.”

Since her family could not afford to send her to college then, Dr. Kalayjian began working at a meat packing market right after high school to save up for her education, determined to pursue her ambitions. She enrolled in a local community college, and while there, an opportunity from a 4-year institution arrived at her doorstep.

Eventually, she earned her nursing degree from Long Island University. After achieving a 4.0 GPA, she was recruited by Teachers College at Columbia University, where she earned her master’s and doctoral degrees—all while working as a registered nurse at night at the Metropolitan Hospital in NYC. Long Island University also awarded her an Honorary Doctor of Science Degree, making her the youngest to receive that title.

Dr. Kalayjian’s initial focus after graduating became alleviating the psychological suffering caused by the Armenian Genocide.

She founded an organization called The Armenian American Society for Studies on Stress and Genocide (AASSSG) in 1988. Its mission was to “advance national and international understanding of the generational and intergenerational effects of traumatic experiences, such as genocide, earthquake, and war.”

Dr. Kalayjian wanted to help Armenian survivors cope with the long-term impacts of the atrocity of the Genocide and the widespread systemic denial that followed. That is why the Armenian Genocide is called “the forgotten Genocide,” she says.

In the late 1980s, there was no scientific research on the Armenian Genocide, making specialized aid more difficult. This was partially due to the dispersed population of Armenians in the diaspora.

“1.5 million people were slaughtered, and the rest of the Armenians were thrown out of their homes to their death march through the Arabian deserts. Two-thirds of Armenia is occupied by Turkey. In fact, my name, ‘Ani,’ is the name of the capital city of Western Armenia, where there once were 1,001 churches. Now it is called ‘Ani: Turkish Ruins.’”

The first research project was to interview 60 Armenian Genocide survivors to learn how they coped with the tragedy, its aftermath, and Turkey’s continued denial and revisionist story. AASSSG then gave them strategies to deal with long term-PTSD.

The organization also reached out to the children and grandchildren of survivors to study generational trauma, specifically in the context of the Armenian Genocide.

“Inherited generational trauma is widely documented with the Holocaust and its lasting impact on the offspring of survivors. In 1990, there was barely any information relating to the Ottoman Turkish Genocide and other historical tragedies like it, which is why it was so important for our organization to publish this research in the International Journal of Traumatic Stress Studies.”

In 1988, while they were focused on research, a devastating earthquake struck Armenia, killing over 75,000 people. The disaster pushed Dr. Kalayjian’s team to publish their research and transition to launching the Mental Health Outreach Project (MHOP).

MHOP reached out to Armenians in need of humanitarian aid focused on mental health and healing, starting with the earthquake survivors. It was met with a lot of resistance from the Soviet Union, with its Minister of Health in Moscow stating, “We had an earthquake; we are not crazy; we didn’t go crazy.”

“There was little recognition for the consequences of the disaster that stretched beyond physical harm, as in a grief and trauma that is unfathomable,” Dr. Kalayjian said.

Despite the lack of support from Moscow and the Soviet government, MHOP offered emotional support to the surviving community of Armenians. It delivered medications and medical supplies, which led to the team being granted a Visa to go to what was at that time Soviet Armenia.

Focusing on natural disasters, Dr. Kalayjian also considered how she could assist people living in the United States. The next humanitarian mission was based in Florida after the devastating Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

In the 1990s, mental health services were not considered essential or even important after a calamity. To make matters worse, they were also widely inaccessible for those who were interested in or could have benefited from them. The Category 5 hurricane left a trail of destruction in its wake, and Dr. Kalayjian and her team felt compelled to help.

This dearth of mental health resources motivated Dr. Kalayjian to expand her nonprofit in 1990 into becoming The Association for Trauma Outreach and Prevention (ATOP) MeaningfulWorld, which is now an international non-governmental organization (INGO) affiliated with the United Nations Department of Global Communication. The INGO focuses on trauma, humanitarian aid, and human rights violations around the world.

While numerous organizations may provide medical aid and necessities to those impacted by a traumatic event, only a few prioritize psychological healing as their primary focus.

Dr. Ani Kalayjian MeaningfulWorld

Creating peace & forgiveness gardens in Palestine

“In times of disaster, there are so many amazing organizations that come in to help rebuild a community, provide medical aid, food, and maybe tents, and then they leave. Well, what happens to the survivors after NGOs leave? Most probably become depressed, lonely, and suffer from symptoms of PTSD. Some even think that they are going crazy. They need emotional support, so that’s why we created our MeaningfulWorld.”

Dr. Ani Kalayjian MeaningfulWorld

Dr. Kalayjian and Dr. Viktor Frankl, author of “Man’s Search for Meaning”

Providing aid to people all over the world came with its own set of dangers. In 1999, while serving as the President of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS), NY Chapter, she was invited to share her research in Istanbul, Turkey, at the ISTSS’s Annual Conference on Psychotraumatology & Human Rights.

While in Istanbul, word got around to the government and denialists that Dr. Kalayjian was going to share the research she had done on the Armenian Genocide. For the next week, she faced harassment and threats to both her and her family’s life. “Each day, another two officers would come and threaten me,” she says.

Ultimately, she was asked by the organizers to modify her paper by replacing “Genocide” with “mass trauma,” changing “Ottoman Turks” to “perpetrator,” and referring to “Armenians” as “survivors” instead. Otherwise, she would be barred from presenting.

Although they censored the words considered taboo in Turkey with a black marker on her overhead transparencies, the projector lights were so strong that the words were still clearly visible.

Dr. Kalayjian was traumatized by the situation. “I was further threatened to not speak about the ongoing threats to my life with anyone,” she says. However, two months after the conference, a devastating earthquake struck Turkey. Dr. Kalayjian organized a humanitarian mission, despite the threats and the trauma she had experienced.

She deployed a team of humanitarians to work beside her—under tents in Yalova and other impacted cities—helping the community to heal. Her colleagues did not support her decision to assist the Turkish people, but she said, “Our Humanitarian Outreach relief work does not have any geographical nor political boundaries.”

Dr. Kalayjian had the opportunity around this time to also take a course with Dr. Viktor Frankl, a neurologist, psychiatrist, and survivor of Auschwitz who lost his entire family in the Holocaust. He spent his time as a survivor working to give meaning to the horrors he endured and helping others heal from their trauma. He is known worldwide for his transformative book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

“When talking with Dr. Frankl, I asked a lot of questions regarding the denial of the Armenian Genocide and the resulting anger that many survivors expressed. President Biden was the first U.S. president to acknowledge the Genocide of Armenians as an international tragedy, so for 105 years, Armenians were coping with the inherited trauma of the Genocide while also dealing with the fact that the entire world denied that their trauma even existed.”

As of 2023, the governments and parliaments of 34 countries have formally recognized the Armenian Genocide. However, Tukey and Azerbaijan both deny it ever happened.

“I remember Dr. Frankl telling me that in order to work through the anger stemming from the grief and denial, we have to be able to forgive, to which I said, ‘How do you forgive something that is not acknowledged?’ He answered with his heavy Viennese accent, ‘How long are you going to wait?’ That became a revelatory moment for me.”

“It is often said that grief is love persevering, and to cope with it, you must give it a meaning,” Dr. Kalayjian says. She says that this encapsulates a lot of what Dr. Frankl wrote about after his experiences.

Dr. Kalayjian is a Dutch Diplomat in Logotherapy, the school of psychotherapy Dr. Frankl developed. It is based on the idea that the primary motivational force of an individual is to find meaning in life.

“Even Hitler himself, when questioned about how he thought he would get away with the Holocaust, said, ‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’ It was these moments that led me to the creation of MeaningfulWorld.”

“We must give meaning to these events that cause generations of trauma responses and mental illness. We must acknowledge, remember, and work towards creating a positive meaning for ourselves to create a brighter tomorrow for the next generation, and we must be activists to ensure prevention.”

Dr. Kalayjian’s entire career has been dedicated to aiding trauma survivors, and as she advanced in her field, she realized that trauma victims could be found in any corner of the globe. By unearthing these issues and providing reasons for why we react and feel certain ways after a tragedy, she has helped countless individuals find meaning in their loss and grief.

“My passion has always been to help people who are suffering or traumatized, whether it be gender-based violence, country-based violence, individual, generational, collective, or horizontal trauma. I just wanted to show people positive options to transform their negative life experiences. Trauma that is not transformed will be transferred to the next generations.”

MeaningfulWorld aims to foster a peaceful and just world. Dr. Kalayjian says the INGO wants to conscientiously nurture people and the world’s physical, emotional, social, and ecological health. The organization helps people find contentment in their lives that is not attached to material things but to values and causes to serve, such as “volunteering, compassion, and love.”

The INGO offers mental health education programs and workshops on “emotional intelligence, trauma healing, gender & youth empowerment, self-care, forgiveness and meaning-making.”

Classes also cover struggles related to professional life, including “stress management, time management, creating a healthy workplace, preventing burnouts, mindfulness, resolving conflicts peacefully, and conscientious leadership.”

On an individual level, MeaningfulWorld helps to positively transform tragedy and trauma through Post Traumatic Growth (PTG), mindfulness strategies, and “mind-body-eco-spirit health” through the lens of Dr. Kalayjian’s signature “7-Step Integrative Healing Model.”

These methodologies provide relief and restoration to those traumatized and to mental health professionals themselves. The unique model integrates seven modalities, including “psychodynamic, interpersonal, energetic, logotherapeutic, spiritual, ecological, and learned theory.”

The INGO’s humanitarian outreach teams have helped rehabilitate millions of survivors of traumatic events in over 50 countries and 26 states in the U.S. by learning how to “Identify, Describe, Express, Affirm and Let-go (IDEAL).”

“We have continued to volunteer locally and globally throughout the 90s and into the current millennium as natural and human-made disasters continue. Our organization was able to grow and establish itself as a humanitarian INGO that could provide peace in places where citizens have not felt a sense of calm for their whole lives.”

Dr. Kalayjian says MeaningfulWorld has recently been working with Guatemala, which suffered a devastating earthquake. The nation is extremely susceptible to natural disasters. It also has a violent history, being the location of the Guatemalan Genocide, which resulted in the murder of thousands of Maya civilians.

The relief efforts that MeaningfulWorld provides ensure that survivors coping with trauma get the help they need to heal themselves.

“We’re not just trying to put out the fires or run after disasters after they occur; we’re working on preparedness, prevention and building emotional infrastructure to help nurture the emotional intelligence of individuals in these regions.”

However, resources are limited. In her 1995 book “Disaster & Mass Trauma,” Dr. Kalayjian emphasized that if the world did not shift its mindset and the ways in which we deal with ecology, these disasters would continue to happen at a higher frequency and intensity. The lack of care for our planet and the environment has led to devastating consequences, as we have seen in recent decades. “These things are all interconnected,” she says.

Loving and protecting Earth and nature is central to MeaningfulWorld’s mission. The organization establishes “peace & forgiveness gardens” around the world in Argentina, Palestine, Armenia, Haiti, and Africa and plants trees in Puerto Rico, Kenya, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone.

“Usually, psychology separates the ideals of ecology and spirituality from itself. However, what is our health, if not the environment we live in and what we believe in? Even if we live in the nicest town, in the nicest house, looking at the world can be extremely disheartening.”

She believes the recent shift to prioritizing mental health is wonderful but only came about after staggering loss and mourning from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Ani Kalayjian MeaningfulWorld

MeaningfulWorld Ambassador graduation at the United Nations

“There’s never been more of a need for mental health support and trauma healing. Within the past few years, we all experienced the collective trauma of living through a pandemic and saw millions of people die from a virus we knew nothing about.”

Dr. Ani Kalayjian MeaningfulWorld

On ABC addressing the psychological trauma of school shooting

Dr. Kalayjian warns that we, as a society and as individuals, must prepare for such a scenario to repeat. We need to cultivate a local and global plan for recovery instead of isolation.

“Currently, there’s still the unresolved issue of how we were all truly impacted by the pandemic and what is the strategy for the next global crisis. We need to support one another in a true socialization, instead of repeating ‘social distancing.’ But first, we need to nurture self-care.”

Dr. Kalayjian believes we are headed in the right trajectory. She says, “The fact that we’re now living in a world where the seriousness of mental health is being respected, we can implement our programs with minimal resistance.”

“The silver lining of this recent pandemic is the destigmatization of mental health. During the pandemic, we were all in the same boat of unknowing and isolation, while now, we need to be there for each other to process this collective trauma. As we say at MeaningfulWorld, ‘When one helps another, both become stronger.’”

As part of its preventive initiatives, MeaningfulWorld reaches out to high schools to teach teenagers various ways to “manage emotions, communicate assertively, protect one’s peace and advocate for justice.”

“As teenagers, we all can remember how hard it was to grow up surrounded by different kinds of people and the constant search for purpose and meaning,” she says. The organization is also working with younger students to teach them the language of “self-love, advocacy, emotional intelligence, and distress tolerance.”

Dr. Kalayjian also volunteered in prisons to give inmates a chance to learn about their own emotional vulnerabilities and coping mechanisms while giving them tools to change how they react to negative and challenging situations. Dr. Kalayjian says they can lead a life with a fresh start and toolbelt of integrative modalities when they are released.

“MeaningfulWorld has a three-prong approach. The first is healing and education, the second is research, publication and media engagement, and the third is policy revisions.”

They have a large research arm that contributes to studies centered around catastrophic events and their effects on survivors.

The INGO has published hundreds of articles in referee journals on research conducted during 35 years of humanitarian relief. This information is always made immediately available through its website and monthly bulletin so other organizations and individuals can utilize it. The findings are also shared with United Nations diplomats and ambassadors, as well as on social media and YouTube.

To stay informed, the INGO also attends weekly U.N. panels to discuss various social justice, gender empowerment, peace-building, and ecological issues. In March, which is also Woman’s History Month, it was invited to hold a parallel program at the 67th Commission on Status of Women on how to improve women’s lives in seven regions of the world.

Finally, for the public, MeaningfulWorld offers a free weekly Zoom support group on Thursdays, in which individuals from all over the world can join in, release negative emotions, and receive support. It even offers monthly all-day workshops where attendees can earn a Humanitarian Relief certificate. “We also offer internships, leadership positions, postgraduate fellowships at the United Nations, and ambassadorships,” she says.

“In these programs, a multitude of resources, tools, techniques, and strategies are also shared, so everyone has the chance to try new methods of healing and coping. We offer multiple lectures, seven photography exhibits, workshops, and integrative healing parties to allow individuals to find resources more specific to their needs.”

Dr. Kalayjian has written six books to date titled Forget Me NOT: 7 Steps for Healing Our Body, Mind, Spirit, and Mother Earth and has co-authored Forgiveness & Reconciliation; Mass Trauma & Emotional Healing; A Journey of Empowerment, Healing, and Transformation; and both volumes of Mass Trauma and Emotional Healing Around the World: Rituals and Practices for Resilience and Meaning-Making. Her latest release was in March, A Journey of Empowerment, Healing, and Transformation—a coffee table book with her photographs of 35 years of humanitarian relief efforts, her poetry, and uplifting quotations.

She hopes to keep doing her important and much-needed work.

“If you don’t heal what’s hurting you, you will bleed on people who didn’t cut you and then pass it on to 14 generations. The Goddess within me embraces and celebrates the God/Goddess within you. Let’s hold hands and create the dance of our lifetime. Dance is a metaphor for life, helps us connect with love, flow with grace, step with caution and determination while we gaze at one another with admiration, validation, and empathy, and with love and acceptance, we lead one another towards joyful enlightenment.”

To learn more about the organization, visit www.meaningfulworld.com.