“We have been on a journey,” says the psychologist who is leading the final session of Mohammed’s group. She sits comfortably cross-legged on the floor, in her long coat and headscarf, next to the young man who is her partner on this last day. “We have come to know each other in a way that is not usual here in Gaza,” she goes on. “men and women speaking together from their hearts, all of us finding new friends.”
December 20, 2009
If Gaza is saturated with tradition, and blessed with generous impulses, it is galvanized by politics. Until several years ago, when we developed a high level of skill and firmness in directing our trainees back to their own present feelings, simple declarative statements often threatened to veer off into impassioned political narratives. The Palestinian faculty we have trained now recognizes the hazards, and has become adept at forestalling rhetoric, foreclosing budding arguments, redirecting attention inward, and calling for immediate feelings as well as the historical conditions that may have provoked them. Inevitably, however, politics and the devastating consequences of political decisions are not far from the minds and speech and feelings of Gaza’s men, women and children.
In the small groups we see and hear that the consequences of history are inscribed in our participants’ pain and fears. Remember the hurt that the young psychologists whom I described in the previous blog carry from childhoods shadowed by loss and deprivation and squeezed by self-righteous brutality. And anxiety about present safety and future survival is absolutely, understandably universal: Gaza is closed off from the rest of the world, vulnerable to unpredictable attack from Israelis who control its borders and airspace and to violent schisms and reprisals within. Inevitably there are symptoms: One stocky young male psychologist from a distinguished family of Gazan warriors admits, embarrassed but eager for help, to “panic attacks” when his toddler daughter develops a cold or returns late from a babysitting relative; several other mental health professionals speak of waking abruptly, hearts racing at innocent sounds that evoke body-memories of Israeli shells landing or Fatah and Hamas fighting under their windows.
Six months ago, Gaza, though deeply wounded, seemed far more hopeful. Crumbled buildings – large public and small private ones — punctuated the streets of Gaza City and Rafah; blasted orchards and fields torn by shells tolled a loss of innocence as well as income; memories of the 1400 who died in the fighting in December and January filled the eyes of families we visited and appeared, often briefly, modestly, but with head-shaking sadness, in conversation. Still, there was a sense that things might, even that they likely would, finally change for the better.
One of Hamas’ top officials, Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmed Yousef, spoke of the renewed faith in American idealism that Barack Obama’s election and his speech in Cairo had inspired in him and others; of his hope for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas; and of a future in which a regional partnership “of the world’s three great monotheistic religions” would bring peace, tourism and industry to Gaza and the West Bank as well as Israel. “Soon, inshallah, (god willing)” our Gaza faculty estimated, “we will be able to go with you to Israel, the West Bank, maybe even America.”
The current “situation” – the word is an all-purpose one that Israelis as well as Palestinians regularly use – seems by contrast dispiriting, even desperate, to the Gazans I meet outside of as well as in our training. Now Ahmed Yousef reminds me that “we have not fired on Israel for a year,” and asks, sadly, rhetorically, “and what has been our reward?” Young people wonder whether a world that will not open Gaza’s borders to trade that is necessary for rebuilding or to the free passage that will overcome their punishing isolation, understands or cares about or even notices their plight. Several speak, with resignation but chilling firmness, of the inevitability, in the absence of progress, of resuming “resistance”:
I do not feel that the vast majority of Gazans whom I meet – and I have worked closely with several hundred and met many hundreds more over the last seven years – want to return to fighting; it is that they do not know what else to do, how else to lift the crushing weight of the occupation, to signal, amid what appears to them colossal indifference, if not hostility, that they are “human,” and deserve the basic rights that the rest of us assume. “Don’t the Israelis understand we are just like them” one young woman, a well educated “political independent” asks me. “I have parents and children I love. I want to help my people. Yes, I hate what the Israeli government has done to us, but I do not hate Israelis.”
There are to be sure fanatics in Gaza, people chained to an unchanging allegiance to past wounds, committed to a holy war that will wipe Israel from the landscape. They are, however, very few among the very many I have met. Hamas has been a resistance movement and has committed terrorist acts, as, I would add, have other movements in this region. However, many of its leaders and many of the young who have been drawn to it now aspire, in spite of their current distress, frustration, and discouragement, to becoming partners in leading a state, productive members of a tolerant regional and world community. A burly young man, a high ranking government functionary who speaks with resignation about the possibility of resuming resistance, sounds a few moments later exactly like an American graduate student. He is particularly glad to talk with me, he says, because he wants my advice on framing a topic for the PhD thesis he hopes to write.
The day before our training ends, I speak, at Ahmed Yousef’s invitation, at The House of Wisdom, an independent Swiss funded Gaza City “think tank” that he helped found. “Everyone has to speak English here,” he tells me. “We want to be part of the world community.” Thirty earnest young intellectuals – political scientists, environmentalists, government officials – gather on short notice: Some are affiliated with Hamas, others with Fatah; many are unaffiliated with any political party.
I sit at the intersection of long polished seminar tables – it could be Georgetown or Harvard- and talk about the work we are doing in Gaza, the research that demonstrates its efficacy in reducing stress, improving mood, and enhancing hope for the future. I discuss the resilience of the people and the community that supports them; the central role of self-care and mutual help in all health and mental health care; the necessity of knowing and caring for and changing oneself as a prelude to helping others do the same; the dangers of fixed ideological positions that force people to deny or suppress their true and changing needs; and the importance of meaning and purpose in sustaining all of us. There are nods of heads and some smiles. The questions and comments are thoughtful, balancing appreciation for and curiosity about our work – “Yes, I and others in politics could use that,” remarks one man – with reminders of the challenges to safety and survival as well as sanity that continue to confront all Gazans.
As the seminar draws to a close, the House of Wisdom executive director Mahmoud El Madhour, a wavy haired, urbane PhD engineer and MBA who has studied Greek philosophy in Greece, and is a proud independent, thanks me. He ends the afternoon with a few words of reflection: “Without communication,” he begins in easy but urgent English, “we have nothing.” He pauses for a moment. “We stand here in Gaza, with no other place to go. This is my resistance. Gaza is a lovely place. And I want you to know I do not mind sharing it.”
Here's a brand new video of clips from the Gaza training, showing more techniques and lectures!
Here's the video I promised from Day 3 of the training. It's short, but I think it shows what our training in Gaza is all about.
“How do you,” he asks soberly, “deal with a situation in which during a mind-body group bombs are going off?”
“This has happened to me several times,” replies Mohammed, the psychiatrist . . . .
Here's more about the continuing training program and how it's going in Gaza this week--more descriptions about techniques we're learning, and the very real ways these techniques are helping Gazans in day-to-day life--and I'll post some more video again, soon.
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.)
I wanted to make a few announcements about the PBS special, my piece on caring for military caregivers featured in The Huffington Post, and my travels to the Middle East this week.
I just returned from another trip to Israel and Gaza to visit our programs there and to plan for the future. I’ll tell you about what happened sometime soon. Right now, I wanted to share with you some testimonials from health and mental health professionals who participated in our most recent professional training in Gaza (March 7-11, 2009). It was, as you’ll see, an extraordinary five-day experience. Jamil Abdel-Atti and his Palestinian team gave just about all the lectures (I filled in some) and led all the small groups. Amy Shinal, our CMBM clinical director, and Afrim Blyta and Yusuf Ulaj, Kosovo psychiatrists and dear brothers with whom I’ve worked for ten years and I provided consultation and supervision; and Dan Sterenchuk and Lee-Ann Gallarano, from our DC office, offered invaluable administrative support. But the training and the beautiful spirit came with our wonderful Gaza team.
Here, then, is what some of our participants had to say:
The information, the relaxation techniques, meditation, and deep breathing. I deeply discovered myself and how to take care of myself. I discovered my neglected body and promised to be taken care of. I forgave my friends and relatives I have neglected and lived far from. Spirituality, I had neglected that part for so long, but realize how important it is for my healing. Grateful for the ability to apply these new techniques in my work. I met new friends. The family tree gave me a very good space to think of my relationships that I’ve ignored.
• Ensherah Zqoot
Gaza for Psychological Health Program
First, I want to express my feelings. I’m happy and feel like I own the world. The training was wonderful and excellent. I felt changes in my physical, psychological and mental status. The techniques were great and worth teaching and sharing in such a training. For the first time I feel involved in a training for myself. I feel safe and comfortable with the team and the facilitator Jamil, who shared his feelings with us. I want to thank him but can’t find words to express my gratitude. I won’t forget the efforts of everyone who participated in this training. I just want to say I’m truly happy.
• Jabr Hussien Theibet
I benefitted a lot from this training. I debriefed lots of feelings and emotions. I truly thank the mind-body medicine team especially Dr. Jim and Jamil and the rest of the faculty. I hope I will be involved in the advanced training so I can help others like you helped me.
Mohd Abu Omirah
Psychological Support Association
I was asked by my professor in the university to participate in this training and I didn’t know anything about it. I felt sad and angry during and after the war, and I was furious about everything. Felt insecure and that all my dreams and rights have been violated on the beach of Gaza. I was thinking sometimes why live? And why continue living as long as we’re continually exposed to those violations? In the five days of this training my life has changes completely. I felt dreams could come true and might will not last long cause day is coming soon. I felt I was born again, like a new person. I felt like a loving human being, full of happiness and hope for the Gaza children. I have many things to say and deep happiness inside but I didn’t want to talk much and bore you. In the last moments I had in room 402 that I will never forget for I had sad and happy moments. I want to thank Mr. Ahmed Theibet and the small family I lived with for 5 days and for Jim, Jamil and the rest of the faculty. Thank you all.
This training provided me with the following:
1. To control my feelings when I face external stimuli
2. How to respond in a rational way and wisdom in the face of acute and difficult situations.
3. My wish that we implement this program with schools’ teachers and guidance and counseling staff at the Ministry of Education to enable them to deal with students and how to face difficult problems.
Abeer Fathi Shareef
Thanks to Jamil and his incredible team on the fabulous training. Also thanks to Dr. Jim and his team. These techniques are consistent with our Palestinian and Islamic culture and this is the secret beyond the programs success.
Gaza Mental Health Center
Training was very enjoyable in terms of changing the track of our lives and jumped with it that big leap. Therefore I have decided to change my life and to reshape my issues. I felt that the training was extremely individualized and it was directed for us as professionals, where always we are asked to care for others and in a very few occasions somebody remembered us and worked for us rather than the patients cases and clients. Thanks a lot for all of those who were behind the program.
Tawfig Abed A Hadi
This course made us realize that our hearts are like Jim’s, very beautiful and valuable. By awakening all the shine that it contains you had awakened our souls which was about to disappear in the sea of torture. We have lived moments that could be the road to the shining future.
Head of Guidance and Counseling in Ministry of Education
Check out the great AP story by Karin Laub about our Gaza training–
At the Washington Post (you may have to close an ad first to read it)
Or at Google News
It’s an great take on how our mind-body skills training is an unconventional fit, but an immense help, to people within the Palestinian culture. (Great picture of me shaking & dancing up front, too (!!!))
We’re in Israel now—flying back to the States soon. More soon.
All the best,
More news from Gaza City, as our training of much-needed mental health professionals continues