The school is the College Canado Haitien, one of the best in Port-Au-Prince, we are told, before the earthquake and afterwards, too. The students, a few weeks after the school has reopened, are sharp in well-pressed maroon and khaki uniforms—the girls’ hair pulled through berets, the boys sideburns neatly trimmed, tout propre, I think.
Instead of the pre-earthquake concrete buildings, there are open sided wood and metal sheds. Sounds flow from one classroom to another, overlapping in a kind of reverberating clamor. Toward the end of one of our classes, when time of dancing is kept by nimble palms on desktops, the whole campus rocks.
Our equipe, our “team,” –the French is beginning to emerge from deep layers of my unconscious—includes six of us: Lee-Ann juggling logistics as before, with Cassidy, my assistant back home, here to help her and me; Amy, the social worker who is our clinical director, will come tomorrow. Today, Lynda and Kathy, psychologist and family physician, are with me. They are CMBM senior faculty who are adventurous enough to come and to commit to coming again and again. They and Amy will teach our Haitian colleagues and provide consulting and supervision as we build our program.
Today we have been invited by Frere Jacques Anthony Germeil, the principal, to College Canado Haitien. We will have an hour in each of four classrooms with eleventh and twelfth graders who have been told they will learn “lessons in dealing with stress.”
I lead the first class and the third, forty twelfth graders in each, sitting shoulder to shoulder at their desks. Lynda and Kathy, experienced with kids, but new to Haiti and to the trauma and loss that overwhelms the population, will lead the second and fourth classes.
We begin our classes lightly—a little goofily—“How do you breathe?”, I ask to general puzzlement, and then talk about babies doing it easily—naturally—their bellies rising and falling, while adults, and even high school students, cramped in chairs and on benches, barely move their chests. Laurent, my interpreter, and I act out the roles of cats in full fight or flight mode—hissing and growling at each other, and then stepping back to breathe easily. Lynda has her all-boys class—a surprise—consider Kobe Bryant, cool and relaxed, imagining his shots, inspiring the boys to imagine theirs swishing the net.
When we turn the topic to relaxation’s antipode, stress, the bravado of a few—“I’m fine, we’re all fine,” claims one boy; “it was simply a natural disaster” intones another—contends with the more complex memories of their classmates.
Soon, in each and every class, there is a rush of sharing of what happened on January 12th, of how surprise and relief yielded to horror. “I thought the shaking would be eternal. Then, it stopped, and I thought, ‘that’s not so bad, I am ok,’ and I laughed, then I saw my sister covered in dust like a ghost, and I was afraid. And then, underneath my neighbor’s house, there were twisted bodies.”
And the stories come—many, we learn, shared for the first time—and the classmates’ losses pile up: a mother gone, an older brother, “my best friend,” “almost my whole family,” We hear of bodies discovered under rubble and strewn on sidewalk, of dogs chewing on corpses.
When we ask if there are questions, a small forest of hands rises: “How do you go to sleep when these memories keep coming in nightmares?” “How can you breathe deeply to relax when the air is so bad?” “How do you deal with family members who now are arguing all the time?” “What do you do with your belief that another earthquake is coming, or as some say, ‘a tsunami’?”
More about the techniques we use to address these questions coming soon . . . .
“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.