The Training Begins– Day Two & Three
Tears are everywhere. Like high water behind a dam, you can see them swelling, pressing for release in the stiff bodies and taut faces of men and women who gather for the first day of our training.
We’ve selected 120 clinicians, educators and religious leaders. About that many crowd the registration desk and fill the chairs in our lecture hall. But they aren’t exactly the 120 that we invited.
This is the beginning of our Haiti training, but before I tell you about these new colleagues of ours and about what we are learning together, I have to jump to Wednesday morning—Day Four– and to the hours last night, after the election results were in. Demonstrators filled the streets outside our hotel in front of the Champs De Mars, angry thousands protesting results which certified President Preval’s son-in-law in-waiting, Jude Celestin, as a participant in a run-off election. Last night our team heard the pop of gunshots as a counterpoint to the rhythm of music from the hotel band. This morning, smoke from fires fills the air as demonstrators march toward, and, we are told, destroy Celestin’s headquarters.
Everyone we meet believes Mrs. Mirlande Manigat was indeed the legitimate top vote getter, and they are convinced that another candidate, Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly, the pop singer, had more votes than Celestin and if he didn’t, someone else certainly did.
The election results seem to the Haitians only the most recent insult, the latest dismissal of their sovereignty, indeed of their humanity- -once again the big man appoints his successor. All the frustration of all of their months since the earthquake and all the years before, all the pain we’ve seen in the tent dwellers on the Champ de Mars and in the faces of the men and women we are training is erupting- moving this afternoon uphill towards Celestin’s headquarters, and the homes of the rich and powerful.
On this day of anger and danger, only half a dozen of our participants have made their way through large, angry, often armed mobs and small fires. The rest however, have been on the phone, “Tomorrow?” “Don’t do too much today; we don’t want to miss anything.” “Can your international team stay another day?”
Back to the Beginning-Training, Day 2
On Day Two some of our invited participants were kept away by the urgent demands of cholera care, and by fears of the demonstrations that had not yet occurred. But others arrived from the Ministry of Health, the universities, the schools and churches to take their place. By the second day these eager volunteers and the original invitees were joined by the latecomers and by some who have somehow heard stories about unexpected relaxation and education, welcome, and safety. At lunch we feed 145.
The small groups which are central to this adventure in self discovery and self-care- so supportive and inviting for men and women who have held back personal feeling in favor of continual service to others- have swollen in size.
12 or 14 men and women sit in circles meditating, breathing in through their nose and out through their mouth, allowing their bellies to relax, expand, become soft. After they open their eyes they share who they are, what they do, and why they took five days from over burdened schedules to be with us. They speak in turn about the first morning’s large group lectures and “experiential exercises.”
“After the shaking and dancing,” an anesthesiologist begins, “I felt freer. There are not many people in my profession and after the earthquake we did amputations all the time. It was painful. I lost my spontaneity. I think we all have. It was good to dance.” (Read more about the shaking and dancing we used in Haitian schools here)
As we go around the circle the possibility of sitting peacefully, of relaxing at the end of the day, rises on horizons dimmed by almost unimaginable loss, “I have tried,” another physician says, “to bury myself in work so that I do not think of all of those who have died and are buried in the ground.”
“Or are still buried under piles of concrete,” another adds with grim precision.
To be continued tomorrow–check back to learn about how CMBM’s healing drawing exercises and what the participants appreciate about the training.
CMBM Training in Port-au-Prince
Our team has been gathering for the last two days, long flights and sometimes long delays as well.
Jamil Atti is in from Gaza, Afrim Blyta and Jusuf Ulaj from Kosovo, and Naftali Halberstadt from Jerusalem- psychiatrists and psychologists who have lived through war and terrorism themselves, leaders of our program in their country, friends and brothers. From the US, Amy Shinal (our Clinical Director) Lynda Richtsmeier Cyr, Kathy Farah, Lora Matz and Jerrol Kimmel, physicians and psychotherapists–long time friends of 10 to 15 years, talented, adventurous, deeply committed to this international work.
Linda Metayer is our Haitian Program Coordinator, a psychologist with a degree in public health, as brave and courteous as she is smart and competent. Lee-Ann Gallarano, who organizes all of our work with trauma around the world, was working with Linda before we arrived with Jesse Harding, our newest staff member, who several years before worked with Lee-Ann when they were Peace Corps Volunteers in Mali. Tod and “B”, gifted documentarians, are filming us, and Mark, who has volunteered his time, is taking most of the still photos you’ll see on this blog.
We spend this first day “checking-in”, hugging, laughing, sometimes crying, as we tell the stories of our first meetings, recalling the power of soft belly breathing to help us relax in the middle of fire fights, of Afrim informing us in Gaza City that the 3AM earth shaking noises were in fact sonic booms. And everyone is speaking of the realization, growing over the years that, “You are my people,” “This is the work I want to do,” “I am at home.”
In the early evening Linda, Amy, Jesse and I walk with our camera crews into the sprawling tent camp across from our hotel- 10,000 people in the Champs de Mars. We had been told that “from the outside things look better.” There were fewer tents, less crowding. Up close the opposite turns out to be true- some people have indeed left, clearing out in terror of cholera, but everyone doubts they have found places much better. Meanwhile, moving from one clump of canvas, plywood, plastic and corrugated metal– one collection of shelters to another — we hear similar disturbing, dispirited stories: there is actually less food and water than there was four months ago and far more violence. Women, and muscular men as well, tell us that if and when they are able to sleep, it is with one eye open, alert to robbers who are often armed, and to rapists. The jobs cleaning rubble that once helped sustain these encampments have moved on, though no one knows exactly where.
Though some people are shy and wary, virtually everyone is gracious and within a few moments, eager to talk to us. Mothers tell us that so many of the children are “hyper” since the earthquake. We see them shuffling from foot to foot, eyes shifting with their bodies. The mothers say they have lost weight. When I ask about emotional problems everyone- men, women, teenagers- says they are angry. “What do you do?” I say. “I pray to God,” several say. “I take this medicine,” says a man raising a small bottle of homebrew. A woman says, troubled, but resigned, “I beat my children.” Several others nod.
As we move from one section of the camp to the other, two teenagers run past and jostle Linda. A moment later we see that her necklace is gone. She is a bit shaken, but philosophical, “They do it to eat,” she says. Other camps are likely to be somewhat better, but some are not and there are 10,000 people here. Walking back to our hotel I feel the weight of life here in Haiti, people stretched and pushed beyond breaking. I think of how much our work is needed, and I feel frustration along with everyone else. “Where is the organization?” I ask rhetorically, “The benefits of all the money the international community has committed?”
I wanted to share with you an article I just published on Health News Digest. I hope you’ll find it useful going into the Labor Day weekend, and that you’ll share with friends and family who may be in need of some stress relief.
Labor Day Tips for Reducing Stress by James S. Gordon, M.D. (originally posted on Health News Digest: Original Article)
Labor Day is traditionally a time of rest before the renewed activity of fall. For tens of millions of Americans who are unemployed or underemployed it is a time of high stress, a time when anxiety caused by economic insecurity and foreclosures unsettles, agitates, and casts a shadow over the unemployed and their families.
Over the years, I have worked with thousands of people who have been made anxious and depressed by economic hardship. Here are five steps drawn from my most recent book, “Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression,” that people can take to address the pain and insecurity that may come with today’s economic uncertainty. All of them are free and all can be easily learned and done at home.
1. Begin a simple nondenominational meditation practice: Slow, deep breathing — in through the nose, out through the mouth, with the belly soft and relaxed and the eyes closed — is a sure antidote to the stress response that uncertainty provokes. To encourage relaxation you can say, “soft” as you breathe in and “belly” as you breathe out. Begin with five minutes, two to three times a day.
2. Move your body: Physical exercise may be the single best therapy for depression. It’s very good for anxiety as well. Find any kind of movement that suits you, jog, dance, swim, or walk, it all works. You’ll see and feel some benefits after 15-20 minutes.
3. Reach out to others: Human connection — to family, friends, co-workers in the same boat — is an antidote to the sense of aimlessness and isolation that may come from job loss or unexpected economic insecurity.
4. Find someone who will listen and help you take a realistic look at your situation: Allow a trusted friend or adviser to help you look for possible solutions for any stressful situations you may be experiencing. In addition to helping you unburden your mind, body and spirit, a trusted friend or advisor can often see solutions more clearly than you and can help you find ways to put these solutions to work.
5. Let your imagination help you find healing and new meaning and purpose: After breathing deeply and relaxing for a few minutes, imagine someplace safe and comfortable, it could be a place you know and love or one that comes to you. Make yourself at home there, notice what’s around you, breathe deeply and relax. My colleagues and I at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine have used this safe place imagery successfully with New York City fire fighters after 9/11, with U.S. troops going to or returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and with families in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We teach it every day in our offices and like the other four steps, we use it ourselves.
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.)
“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.
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.)
Gaza City, December 13, 2009
Our faculty gathers in a circle in high backed chairs in the ballroom of the Commodore Hotel – physicians, psychologists, a couple of social workers – 15 in all. Many of the men, who are mostly in their forties, are in suits and ties. The women, young and middle aged, all wear scarves, their heads covered as are those of ninety-five percent of adult females in Gaza; most are also in the long shape-shielding coats they wear even in the summer heat. The feelings of all of them, for one another and for us, are, however, easily visible, even palpable; the room warms with affection, hums with connection, as each one of us, in turn, “checks in.”
“My colleagues,” says Naima, a dark skinned Bedouin from Rafah at the southernmost tip of Gaza’s twenty-five mile long strip, “are not just friends but family. When the international team is here, the family is complete.” She really means it; she has returned early from her honeymoon to be with us for the training. Others have made sacrifices too. Mohammed the psychiatrist who heads up public mental health services in Gaza, made the “difficult decision” not to go to a meeting in the West Bank: “I want” as does everyone of Gaza’s penned up one and a half million people, “to get out of this prison, but I prefer to be with all of you. You are,” he adds, lightening the mood, “the best antidepressant.”
And there is more humor, as always in Gaza a crucial ingredient of the savor that makes life more than survival: A spontaneous, slightly exaggerated romantic song for Shaher who is celebrating his twentieth wedding anniversary, Abdel Hamid’s confession that “even with two wives” he is “well”, gentle teasing in untranslated Arabic of Naima about her interrupted honeymoon.
Four and a half years ago when we began the “mind-body medicine training” of 90 Gaza clinicians, most of these people didn’t know each other at all. In the time since then these “leaders,” whom Jamil has chosen, have conducted hundreds of ten week long mind body groups themselves and supervised colleagues who have led many hundreds more. Altogether 7000 children and adults of every age and social class have participated in these intensive groups and our Gaza team has worked individually, in families, and in brief groups and classroom sessions with at least 15,000 more Gazans. The research we’ve done (on 500 kids and 500 adults) shows very significant decreases in symptoms of post-traumatic stress (up to 80% in those most traumatized) improvements in mood, decreases in anger. Amidst massive Israeli attacks and civil war, in the face of pervasive, indiscriminate and violent death, poverty, isolation and confinement, we have found in those who have participated in our groups an enduring (at six months follow-up) enhancement of hope and optimism about the future.
Our team and the people they have worked with, and the changes that are so obvious to and in them, are the magnets that have drawn participants to the training that begins the next day. Eight months ago 150 of them (chosen from some 500 applicants) learned the basic techniques of our approach, and the science of stress and its reduction, and experienced the surprising comfort and intimacy of our small groups – “the one place in Gaza where everyone can take off their masks, relax and be themselves,” is the way Mohammed, who has led similar groups for professional colleagues, old men with chronic illness, war-traumatized children and patients on the psychiatric ward, describes these utterly confidential, tenderly led gatherings of 8 to 10 people.
When they check in their first small group our participants recall the experience of the first training: “I was so happy’” “It was like a vacation to me,” “It changed my personality, my life 180 degrees – I am no longer sick with colds and stomach upset. My doctor asked me what medicine I took”. During and after those five days many have begun to act differently – more assertive toward overbearing and arbitrary bosses; more sensitive to other people and, indeed to their own emotions:“it is not unmanly to cry when one witnesses the horrible suffering of our people”; more willing, even when it conflicts with cultural norms, to trust their own intuition: several young people whom I hear personally (I wonder how many more there are) have told their well-meaning parents that the bridegroom or bride selected for them was not a good match, and calm, sincere, and convinced, have prevailed.
During the intervening months they have met every four weeks with their group leaders – “strengthening our family” – to practice the meditations and the guided imagery, to do the drawings that express their feelings and summon up imaginative solutions to daily stress, to share the losses and frustrations that shadow the lives of every Gazan and to celebrate the joys – of jobs well done, and birthdays arriving and weddings to come – that persist. Still, so many of them say they have been “missing” (a word that I hear so often and that seems so apropos in locked in Gaza) us and waiting anxiously for the training.
In the lectures they bend over notebooks, eager to record information that will help them successfully lead, with our faculty’s supervision, small groups – the major task of this training. After they have finished they will offer these groups and use our model with individuals and families in the Ministries of Health, Education and Social Welfare, in the UN health and education programs, at the Red Crescent, and in hospitals, clinics, universities, and community based organizations from the Erez crossing into Israel in the North to Rafah, abutting Egypt in the South.
Lunch is grilled chicken and chicken curry, rice with almonds and raisins, the mix of mezzes – appetizers like hummus, babbaganoush, and spicy “Gaza salad” that are traditional – with fruit for dessert, a wonderful improvement over the GI challenging food of five years before. The participants – university professors and physicians who have taught some of our faculty and just graduated psychologists and social workers who are young enough to be any of our children – are clamorous with the good feelings and high spirits of reunion, old jokes and new intellectual challenges.
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.)