The Christian Science Monitor featured an article on our Healing the Wounds of War program in the Middle East! Ilene Prusher interviewed some of our Gaza trainees, and myself, to write this thoughtful piece. She also notes that it is the one-year anniversary of the Israel siege on Gaza, “Operation Cast Lead,” which devastated the people and landscape of Gaza, and from which they are still struggling to recover a year later.
Here is an excerpt of the article, but I hope you check out the original, with some pictures and related stories on Gaza and the Middle East, here.
Gaza war anniversary: How one group helps victims overcome trauma
By Ilene R. Prusher Staff writer / December 28, 2009
Rawya Hamam was watching her son deteriorate. Hisham wouldn’t sleep, clung to her incessantly, and said he wanted to go back into her belly so he’d be safe. “Grandma is lucky she died so she doesn’t have to live here now,” the boy told his mother.
It’s not a normal statement to expect from a five-year-old child, but neither were these normal times. A year ago, at the outbreak of war between the militant Palestinian group Hamas and Israel, anything resembling a normal life disappeared into a violent maelstrom that wreaked unprecedented destruction on the Gaza Strip. More than 1,400 Gazans were killed, according to a Palestinian count, in a campaign the Israeli army named “Operation Cast Lead,” with the aim of getting Hamas to stop the daily launch of occasionally fatal rockets onto Israeli communities. Thirteen Israelis were killed in the three-week war. . . . keep reading
We’re so thankful for the recognition of our work in Gaza, alleviating psychological pain and suffering, and all of the work we do, both in the Middle East and here in the US teaching health and mental health professionals to learning to handle their stress and incorporate mind-body techniques into their practice through our Mind-Body Medicine Training as well as our Healing Our Troops program. These warm, caring professionals we train use their skill and wisdom to help families recovering from disaster, like those who survived Hurricane Katrina, as well as working with troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and their families.
(If you kept reading my post, don’t forget to check out the rest of the original CSM article with pictures and related stories on Gaza and the Middle East, here.)
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.”
Gaza City, December 16, 2009
As the days pass, our participants discover and discuss new possibilities of psychophysiological self-regulation – breathing deeply to relax in spite of the anxious anticipation of leading a group for the first time, or to find a calm place from which to encounter memories of family members “martyred” by violence. They find in the creative imagination of guided imagery unexpected ease: “When I go to my imaginary ‘safe place’ I discover it is my home – I would not have believed it because we are close to the border and have often been shelled – and I thank God for my family and for seeing the green of the trees every day.”
Sitting in the circles of our small groups we move more deeply into each others’ minds and hearts. Experiences and feelings that are rarely if ever publicly revealed in tradition-saturated Gaza are shared; long suppressed emotions and conflicts emerge.
We hear about the ways that the frustrations of men, deprived in the Nakba – the “catastrophic” loss of homes and villages of 1948 – of their patrimony, unable to maintain their self-respect without jobs or freedom, have manifested in the self-righteous abuse of women and children. Her late arrival after difficulty navigating the streets during a Hamas demonstration reminds one young psychologist – gentle, always smiling, pale in her long black coat – of her father’s fury at an elder brother when one evening years ago he came home late: The old man burned the boy’s arm with a stick glowing with red heat, and turned the instrument on his wife when she pleaded for mercy. The girl watched. A university professor cries with shock and pain for her young colleague, and recalls her own father’s contrasting kindness. Then it is the turn of a large young man, a gentle giant I think, who is also a psychologist. “I have not spoken of this before,” he begins. When he and his brother were six and five, their father forced them, out of, the psychologist now believes, some warped idea of discipline and manliness, to walk 10 kilometers to school each morning before dawn; the young man remembers, his face softening in hurt, his hands opening in incomprehension, how furious his father became when one day, attacked by dogs, the boys ran home. The participant who is leading the group today suggests we stand and hold hands. He asks us, so wisely I think, to “Feel the support of the group,” The pale young woman, quietly tearful, nods with relief and release; the young man thanks us – “Shukran” – and tells us he has vowed always to understand and be kind to his own children.
The ways of Gaza are ancient, sometimes painfully problematic, but also rich and in many ways still sustaining. The closeness to families that can under pressure constrict can also hold up people who should by all ordinary reckoning have collapsed. Mothers, fathers and especially grandparents appear in another imagery exercise – the summoning of a “wise” or “inner guide” with a frequency I have seen nowhere in the Western world. “My grandmother was strong and kind” one young woman announces, emphasizing the conjunction. “she was always there for me.” Another says his long dead, imagined grandfather counseled him not to throw stones at Israeli tanks; “It is a waste, he says to me. True courage will be in caring for your children and your wife.” When a young psychologist – unusually lithe and natty, a “dead ringer” I am told for a Turkish movie star – tells me I remind him of his grandfather. I’m at first taken aback, ready to protest – “I’m much too young,” I think. When I look again and see the sweetness of his face, the tears in his eyes, I am aware of the foolishness of my reaction, and accept the honor he is giving me.
Each day the nature that remains free from overcrowding, the destruction of artillery shells and fear of Israeli patrols appears, vital and hopeful, in mental imagery, check-ins and reminiscences. In the drawings participants make of “how I want to be” and “how I will achieve it,” there are palm trees with ladders- steps to a more hopeful future- leading upward; small patches of green issue gracious invitations; many colored flowers represent “all the brightness of experience;” birds of free thought and feeling fly at the top of pages; the sun warms tired heads and softens hunched, burdened shoulders. Often the sea that borders Gaza appears, deep and ever present, calming troubled minds.
Here’s another video update of our 2009 Gaza Advanced Training Program (ATP)! You’ll see another technique we use, chaotic breathing, a form of very “active meditation” illustrated at minute :37. You’ll also see the introduction to the “fishbowl,” in which we demonstrate to the trainees the small group model, at 1:24. (Small mind-body skills groups meet privately, so this demonstration during training is the best way we’ve found to show the health and mental health professionals attending how to lead their own groups.)