Gaza City, December 12, 2009
Hello Friends, Many of you have asked and many more wondered, what goes on when you guys are over there in the Middle East, in Israel, and especially in Gaza, a strip of land that most of the world, including those parts of it that are closest, ignore or misunderstand, a shabby, beleaguered, always surprising territory where we have been working for more than seven years. What’s it really like? So here goes, with the first of what I hope will be communications every day or two until just before Christmas.
My room in Gaza City’s Commodore Hotel looks out on the Mediterranean, its small waves, falling coolly, brightly, and predictably this early morning. On the spit of land that points toward the open sea where Israeli Navy, vigilant for errant or desperate Palestinian boats, patrol, a dozen Hamas security men, are drilling – lining up in formation, jogging. Tomorrow our Gaza leadership team – sixteen health and mental health professionals of considerable, hard earned skill, sweet dispositions, wry humor and luminous goodwill – will gather downstairs for the faculty preparation that precedes the “Advanced Training” in Mind-Body Medicine of 150 more clinicians.
It’s our first day in Gaza after one in Israel – for me and our US team a long evening filled with meetings with Naftali Halberstadt the psychologist who directs our program there, Rhonda Adessky, the Hadassah Hospital researcher who is our clinical director, Smadar Shmuel our administrator, Danny Grossman the retired Israeli fighter pilot who supports all our healing efforts in the region, and the rest of our Israeli Board.
We’ve trained 300 clinicians, educators and community leaders in Israel – from heads of departments of psychiatry and leading academic psychologists to family physicians, police and the Zaka, the stalwart Orthodox men who gather the body parts of victims of violence for burial, and inform their families of their deaths. The mental health and health professionals use our model – of self-awareness and self-care, of mind-body skills like meditation, guided imagery and biofeedback; of self-expression in words, drawings and movement; and small group support – in hospitals, clinics and universities. The Zaka now bring our meditation techniques and our teachings of awareness and acceptance to the scenes of bombings and car accidents and into the living rooms of overwhelmed, suddenly bereaved families.
Over 120 Israeli school psychologists and school counselors have graduated from our program. They are using our model in schools everywhere, but especially with kids traumatized by shelling in and around Sderot in the South and in the North where Hezbollah’s missiles fell. A third of our Israeli trainees are Arabs, many of whom identify themselves as “Palestinians.” At our meetings in Jerusalem we discuss expanding our work in the South, developing more joint programs for Israeli Jews and Arabs (co-led by our Arab and Jewish graduates) and working with disabled military veterans. We’ll continue the planning when we return from Gaza.
Right now we’re “checking in “in my room at the Commodore, catching up on the time since we and our Palestinian colleagues began, last March, to train this committed and enthusiastic cohort of Gaza clinicians, sharing our feelings of gratitude for the opportunity to be here in Gaza, once again, in what its inhabitants call “the world’s largest open air prison.”
We are enjoying being in Gaza. You may wonder about that word “enjoy.” Actually, the feeling is much rounder and more robust, and, of course, more complex as well. Gaza is, in spite of some much needed UN sponsored cleanup of rubble from the Israeli attacks of last winter, a bleak place, terribly diminished by the severe restrictions on material coming in and exports (chiefly food and flowers) leaving, by overwhelming population density and pervasive poverty, and by the widespread – and still unrepaired – destruction of farms, fields and factories, of mosques, public buildings, and private homes. And yet Gaza is to me and to our team a place that is at least as blessed by its people as it is cursed by conflict.
As we sit in a circle each of us recalls, along with the terror of times past – days training our Palestinian colleagues in 2007 while Hamas and Fatah fought in the streets not far from our hotel, nights of Israeli planes’ building shaking, glass breaking sonic booms, the bodies of children lying in the streets – a sense of satisfaction, and, yes, love, that far outweighs it and draws us back over and over. Amy Shinal our clinical director, Afrim Blyta and Yusuf Ulaj, Kosovo psychiatrists I began to work with ten years ago during the war there, Dan Sterenchuk and Lee-Ann Gallarano, our administrative team, and I all feel it and say it each in his or her own accents: Our Gaza team feel like our family, instantly recognizable and available, and accepting and caring in a way that recalls the embrace of those bound to us by biology. We are there to teach them – about mind-body skills, and being aware of the thoughts and feelings that arise each moment, and the uses of the imagination, and about skillfully leading groups – and they inevitable teach us so much more, about generosity arising in the midst of the greatest tragedy, openheartedness to strangers, the power of community and of love for one another, the possibility of hope in the darkest of times, endurance, patience, tolerance, humor.
At lunch we eat a meal of seafood on the terrace – it is late spring warm, if breezy on this December day- of the Lighthouse restaurant with our Gaza coordinator psychologist Jamil Abdel Atti. We toast – with lemonade in dry Gaza – Chuck Feeney the Chairman of The Atlantic Philanthropies who has funded our work for five years and Don de Laski my always generous US Board member: The sufferings of Gazans, and first the promise and later the effectiveness of our work have touched them deeply. On the coast road cars and motorbikes flying green flags chug by celebrating Hamas’ birthday. We have coffee and ready ourselves for the training to come.
(Film to follow in days ahead.)