We’re on our way to Haiti now, via the circuitous route that the damaged Haitian airport and the daunting US weather demand. We’ll be arriving on Thursday to begin working with people on the ground and exploring partnerships with the Haitian government and local and international NGO’s, churches, schools, and other community groups. I’m going with Rosemary Murrain, our Director of Administration and Finance, who has worked in Haiti, and Star Myrtil, a young Haitian woman who has been a Program Manager for NGO’s and speaks Creole as well as French.
We’ll let you know more when we’re on the ground; meanwhile, here’s a brief description of the work we hope to be doing.
All my best,
“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.”
This is our last group and, as we check-in, and while my translator summons up her English, I find myself pondering old mysteries and contemplating new wonders. The dress of the woman’s co-leader: He is wearing a sport jacket and slacks, neatly pressed, and a tie, secured with a Windsor knot, a professional code of dress that many of the men favor. How much effort, I wonder, does it take to maintain such self-respect amid Gaza’s crushing, demoralizing constraints? And how does he do it with the dearth of dry cleaning facilities and the scarcity of solvents? I am impressed once again by the intelligence, dignity and, yes, elegance of a woman who, except for a tiny slit for her eyes is completely covered. Her assessment of herself this last day is so open, unsparing, witty – “I want to thank all of you,” she begins, “I realize now I have been too rigid, and often wrong, in my judgments; and I have been unnecessarily covering my feelings, not just my body.” I too realize once again – what a grace of these groups – that I have much to learn about my own preconceptions and judgments.
In this session we do drawings similar to the ones we do on the first day of the first training, pictures that often show us how much – sometimes how stunningly, satisfyingly much – we have changed since that opening group. The wires of a cage that contained an irritable, frustrated physician have turned into steps on a ladder which will bring him to a place of peace, among trees in his yard and within himself; a psychologist’s family members scattered across the landscape by misunderstanding in day one’s picture are now gathered in a comforting circle in which they are, like members of the mind-body group she is addressing, “sharing their feelings.”
Our leader has brought us candies wrapped in red foil, to celebrate our time together, and to mark its end. “I Love You” is written across them in silver. Another woman has brought us all pens “to remember this group when you write.” A third has baked a cheesecake, its top speckled with many colored candied glitter, with a single candle. “This is,” she announces, “to celebrate our journey and also,” she adds, “the Prophet Mohammed’s hijra,” his journey from Mecca to Medina in 622, “whose anniversary falls on this day.”
It was in Medina, I remember, that Mohammed created the umma, the spiritual community that is the model for Islamic society. It provides Muslims with the opportunity to gratefully practice the prayers and manifest the precepts and the code of conduct that Mohammed brought to them.
As our leader carefully divides the cake in squares I hear, as clearly as if he were once again standing in front of me, the closing comment of a young psychologist in our previous training nine months before. A tough, pale, earnest, bearded young man, he had spoken with some formality: “I did not know what to expect when I came; these techniques, it seemed to me, were foreign to Gaza. But as I have been here these days I have been so impressed. You and your faculty are so knowledgeable and such good teachers, and I have learned so much about myself as well as psychology. But even more important” – I can hear again his voice lowering, more intimate now – “you have all been so kind to me and all the participants, have made us feel so much at ease. I believe,” – I knew he was getting ready to conclude, but never could have imagined what he would say – “that this is what it must have been like in the time of the Prophet Mohammed.”
Our leader hands us plates, and we eat our cake and savor each other’s company. There is general sadness at “concluding this blessed vacation with ourselves,” as one woman observes, to general agreement. But there are also commitments to “meditate daily” and “shake and dance with my children when we are feeling overwhelmed, or stressed.” Everyone expects to “start mind-body groups for patients on the first of the year.” There are promises all around to be in touch in the months ahead – in the supervision groups that Mohammed and the rest of our faculty will be leading every week throughout Gaza, and less formally too. Phone numbers are exchanged and a paper passed around for email addresses.
And then our leader in her long coat and head scarf reaches over and turns on the CD player and stands and claps, and sways a little, while her young colleague in the sports coat, his collar open and tie now loosened, rises and steps to his right toward Mohammed and the other men, and begins the steps that will take them and me too, our arms on each others’ shoulders, in a small happy circle, around our room.
Here’s the video I promised from Day 3 of the training. I think it gives you a good feel for what life in Gaza and our training is all about.
You’ll see the training participants practicing the “shaking and dancing” technique at minute :50–and then check out all the smiles.
Gaza City, December 15, 2009
The Advanced Training Program (we call it, and so do the Palestinians, “ATP”) has a complex structure that is at first a bit daunting. Our 15 Gaza faculty coach the participants in leading the same kinds of small groups that they first experienced in the initial training. The international faculty, passing from group to group provide feedback, later, in supervision, on how the Gaza faculty has helped the participants and what they could do or say more appropriately, clearly or concisely; where they could have been more sensitive to the spoken or unspoken needs of a group member; how their own reticence or preconceptions may have inhibited or biased them in their advice to a participant-leader. “Be honest with us,” our conscientious Palestinian team had repeatedly insisted. “We want to do the best job for our people. We are thirsty for learning.”
The participants lead the ATP groups in pairs; there are ten people in each group and five sessions. Hugely nervous at first, in spite of a day of reassurance and coaching, they conduct the opening meditation, and lead the check-in in which they and the other group members say how they are doing and what they are feeling at the present moment. We have encouraged participant-leaders to let go of self-conscious professional distance, to be honest about their own feelings, to be “real people as well as leaders.” Some do this with admirable courage and humility: “I am a professor at university, but at this moment I feel like I am back in grade school.” Others are more guarded. Everyone in the group speaks in turn – no interrupting, analyzing or interpreting allowed.
The participant-leaders then teach didactic material about, for example, the fight or flight and stress response that are activated by the sympathetic nervous system, and the use of slow deep breathing (which mobilizes the parasympathetic nervous system) to balance this state of hyperarousal which is so common in deeply traumatized and uneasy Gaza. Then they lead an experiential exercise – it could be guided imagery, or drawing one’s problem and its solution or quiet meditation that brings about relaxation or an active meditation of fast deep breathing or shaking and dancing, designed to raise energy in the depleted and depressed and break up fixed patterns of thought and feeling. Then they ask group members to report on their experience: “I feel like a burden is lifted” says one young, bearded school psychologist, after six or eight minutes of charged up, bellows-like arm pumping, deep breathing. “I feel free for the first time since the war to breathe the breeze from the sea.” They conclude each group with a quiet meditation. Afterwards the pair of participant-leaders say how they feel they have done and the other participants share what the experience was like for them; the Gaza faculty member concludes with his or her assessment.
This will go on for five two-hour groups over four days. It is designed to equip our participants to take our model back into their work places where they will offer it to kids and adults, the elderly and the deaf, former prisoners in Israeli jails and ambulance drivers, abused women and confused men, the anxious and angry, those bereaved by violence and those fearful they will be. In a society in which psychological problems are stigmatized and psychotherapy is often viewed, if it is considered at all, with suspicion, our model has wide appeal. It is offered as a way to develop skills and strengths, of mind as well as body, an opportunity to come together without fear of analysis or interpretation, a modern version of traditional, honored communal gathering and healing.
Each day we have a panel where Gaza faculty answer questions from the entire group of participants about the challenges of leading groups and working with individuals, about balancing the need to maintain order in the group with an openness that invites sharing, about presenting didactic material in a way that is accurate but easily comprehensible. In Gaza the questions have a special urgency and poignancy. One male psychologist, slender and graying unfolds slowly from his chair. “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, “You find out what is happening – I don’t want to say who is shooting,” he adds to some laughter. “You make sure your group is as safe as it can be. Then you discuss feelings so everyone can get some relief. Then do deep breathing to help everyone, including yourself, to relax. Then continue the group.”
“I was working with kids one time,” Jamil adds. “Every time there was shooting we got up and shook our bodies. Every time a bomb went off we all yelled loudly. It worked pretty well.”
“What about if you are a leader and someone says something that is very tragic and you feel like crying? Is it permitted?”
“In the war terrible things happened” responds Abdel-Hamid, “and the people come to us to talk about it: Women in my groups whose children were killed, men who saw their wives and daughters dying from burns, and I remember the things I myself saw. It is only human for us to cry as well.”
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,