Against all odds
Social work students turn their lives around and help others

Kerry McCluskey
Northern News Services

Iqaluit (Feb 21/00) - Nine years ago, Celina Iyyiraq's daughter and son were murdered.

Away from home with her husband at the time of the event, Iyyiraq explained how her life and her soul were forever altered.

"My daughter's husband shot them to death," she said.

"My son-in-law was taking too much drugs and it led to anger. He was getting more and more angry and finally he couldn't take it any more."

Iyyiraq said her son, who was sick in bed that evening, was awakened by the sound of his sister being beaten by her husband.

"My son-in-law had already loaded the gun and he had hidden it under the bed. He shot my son in the stomach and then he shot my daughter. Then he committed suicide."

The agony Iyyiraq experienced left her completely debilitated and she could no longer function or perform the simplest of tasks for herself or her family.

"Since then I was like a zombie," said Iyyiraq, 50, a resident of Iglulik.

"I wasn't interested in anything any more. I just wanted to stay in my pyjamas in bed."

Months and years passed before she began to feel alive again and it wasn't until she began to participate in the social work diploma program at Nunavut Arctic College that she truly began to heal from her intense loss.

"At first I wasn't interested. I planned to sit on this chair and watch what was going on for two days. That led to a week and then a month and here I am three years later and I'm going to get my diploma," said Iyyiraq.

"Now I'm back to my old self. I'm communicating with my husband and we're one big happy family again."

Just three months away from graduating, Iyyiraq has already made plans to turn her skills loose on the community as a social worker or a teacher because she wants to pass on her new-found knowledge to help her fellow Iglulingmiut and to prevent tragedies like the one she lived through from happening.

"I have so much experience with agony and anger. At 50 years old, I learned how to take control of myself. I don't want to just sit around and do nothing. I have to help my own people. There's so much suicide and so much drugs. I seem to be needed," she said.

Her attitude, and her commitment to sharing her knowledge and experience with her neighbours, is precisely the desired outcome of the program, said instructor Michael Hendrick.

Involved with the program for the last two years, he said Iyyiraq and the other nine participants never stop amazing him with their determination or their will to overcome obstacles and change their lives for the better.

"They humble me with their perseverance," said Hendrick.

"They have outstanding and profound stories of struggle and difficulty, but they've made remarkable progress with the course work," he said.

Including modules on counselling, treatment and prevention, violence, suicide, sociology, communication and human development, the program was born out of the need to not only increase the number of trained Inuit social workers and counsellors in Iglulik, but also to feed the heightened demand for Inuit in the general workforce.

And because so many of the participants have gone through such traumatic incidents, their ability to empathize and relate to those in need of counselling makes them even more valuable.

"Maybe I was chosen to help my own people," said Iyyiraq.

"If I had never suffered such tragedy, I would never know how to handle it and now I know how to help other people. Life isn't a fairy-tale. You have to go through hard times to wake up. I might as well help other people."

Iyyiraq is not alone in her quest to make her community and its residents more healthy. Fellow student Marie Airut said she also wanted to help people find their way.

"After I graduate, the goal I have is to help my people understand who they are. When they don't know where to go or where to turn, I will help them realize who they are and where they are going," said Airut, whose push to take the program came from her need to heal from the death of three of her children.

Leah Ivvalu wanted to be able to provide the type of counselling she used to wish for.

"I was always looking for somebody who understood what I was going through. (Counsellors) always looked so high and mighty and you feel so low, like you're at the bottom of the iceberg," she said.

Still undecided about her plans following graduation, Ivvalu said she was considering offering private counselling services.

As for Katarie Taqaogak, increasing the number of Inuktitut-speaking social workers is crucial to the health of Nunavummiut.

"People get frustrated when the interpreters are not saying all of it, only bits and pieces. Our community is realizing we can be successful and that an Inuk can do it," said Taqaogak, a social worker trainee.

"I'm challenging anyone who is interested to go for it and take this course. We have so much to say."