I’m not quite sure when or even how it happened but Haiti is starting to feel like home. Not in the sense that I have my family with me, or know where to do grocery shopping, or can lay my hands on the books I love most.
It’s something else, an ease with people, a sense of words and actions contributing to something really good – right now and for the future — a welcome, even an embrace that keeps expanding. It swells from the team around me, and from the 120 people — doctors, psychologists, nurses, midwives, teachers, priests and nuns and voudoun healers — who come to our training with great fidelity and teach the techniques they are learning from us to friends, family, and patients as soon as it is humanly possible. “In order to keep the training inside me always, I have to share it with others,” one young teacher announced this morning.
In the days after Yehlie’s first communion we complete the training we began in December. My ‘small group’ of participants, gathered together again, begins as always with a few minutes of soft belly meditation – slow deep breathing, in through the nose, out through the mouth, with the belly soft and relaxed — quieting our nervous systems, our minds and bodies. And then we “check in”, tell each other what has happened since we last saw each other and share what we are feeling “right now.” Already it is becoming a commonplace for us, a way to regularly connect with those around us, outside as well as within the training. “Check in,” laughs one priest, “is almost now a second religion.”
There are still major problems and issues – almost half of our group is still not living in their homes, and there is abiding sadness for those who have died, but there is more energy for understanding and meeting current challenges.
We discuss the short term memory loss that bedevils several people and makes them apprehensive, even in their thirties or forties, about Alzheimer’s disease. I say it is highly unlikely, that trauma has long been known to obscure memory. And one of the other doctors in the group assures us that her memory – devastated amidst the loss of her brother and her husband — has begun slowly to return: “Sharing my emotions, accepting help from others, permitting my own tears – it as if the memory flows back with them.”
This doctor’s face is no longer constricted in pain as on our last visit, but open, changeable, easy with laughter as well as tears. Many of the faces I see are equally changed. James, who is head of psychology for the National Police, scrupulously kind, but painfully thin and equally serious in December, is ten pounds heavier, relaxed, expansive. And the woman I think of as “the Teacher,” as immobile and expressionless as mahogany in devastated grief at the loss of husband and home two months ago, is now a river of feeling and words.
One participant says, “The earthquake brought us so much pain, but also we are seeing it brings good things to the people who survive. Psychology [i.e. traditional therapy] was useless to me and my community – no one could go because it meant you were crazy. Now with CMBM approach I am helping myself and others too.”
Says another, “On January 12th, the anniversary, when everyone in my church was so tense, I taught them the breathing. And as I relaxed I let myself cry, and found my strength, and then we cried together, my children and my friends. And then I sang a song – I have never led a song any time – and I asked everyone to sing with me and praise god. And we did, three songs, and then we all felt more calm.”
It is so encouraging to see the positive changes in our trainees, and to hear that our participants are taking the techniques back to their homes, churches, workplaces. Giving the people of Haiti practical tools for their own emotional healing, and empowering them to teach these tools to everyone they meet, will, we hope, help the Haitian people heal themselves.
Sometimes, on this first anniversary of the earthquake, it feels like very large, steady hands are needed to pull together the two sides of the gaping wound that is Haiti, hands that Michelangelo might fashion for this purpose.
I find myself looking around as we circulate through tent camps with little food and water, no health care or education or employment for the tens of thousands of people I see, for the hundreds of thousands who still live like this all across the region. “How can this be?” I shout – but only inside my head – how can we, Americans, the world community, all of us, let this continue? Our hearts were touched a year ago. Politicians said the right things, famous people answered phones on television and lent their shine to the pleas for help. Billions of dollars were pledged. Where are they? Why is there scant organization, no plan, so little mercy and fellow feeling?
It worries me, as much for ourselves–the privileged, literate, and apparently protected– as for those who live exposed to heat and rain and hurt.
In one of our workshops on January 11, 2011, the day before the anniversary, two men – a priest who tends a devastated parish and an accountant who has left his paying job to bring whatever order he can to two tent camps– share their drawings. (Read more about CMBM’s drawing exercise in this earlier Haiti entry.)
The accountant, a large serious man, sees himself planted in the midst of a quilted crop of families, cooking fires and plastic sheeting; the priest’s drawing of his slim black-clad figure is bright with God’s light refracted through a mirror framed in rainbow colors. The drawings of their “biggest problems” are, with no other guidance, no consultation, virtually identical. One side of the pages shows effort – to salvage and succor, hands reaching out, shovels in the earth – and a row of disconnected figures: “the ones who could help but don’t” “the rich and powerful who do not care.” They are barely sketched, drained of color. On the other side of the page, the people in the camps are suffering, but they do have bodies and expressions.
We need to offer them help, ourselves, in order to be human; and we need this at least as much as they need our help. That is the key to a happier future anniversary.
Fire on the Streets, Peace in Our Circle
CMBM Training, Day Five
25 participants come today, making their way to the hotel around barricades and tire fires in the streets avoiding the demonstrators armed more and more now with guns as well as machetes. Just outside the hotel several men, apparently from one political party, have opened fire on others. Three are dead.
The tent camp on the Champ de Mars is uneasy. People are moving away from the street, ahead of rumors of revenge for political sympathies that some feel are unacceptable. Inside the hotel, its gates locked, its security guards on alert, we feel pretty safe. We’re sitting in a large circle answering questions, sharing what we have learned and are learning. “Is it helpful?” a psychologist asks, “to talk about what makes us afraid? Shouldn’t we use images to make it go away?”
“We cannot force away our fear,” I say. “It doesn’t seem to work. The fear will return.” Heads nod in agreement.
“But isn’t it possible to relax with your fears?” a teacher asks.
“Yes,” I respond, happy at an apt pupil, “that is exactly what we teach.”
“Well,” grinning now, he says, “Let me tell you about yesterday. I was at my school and there was shooting outside between political parties and everyone was upset and very scared. I said, ‘I’ve been in a training and I’ve learned a technique for relaxing even in such difficult situations.’ So, I taught them the safe place images. We sat for ten minutes or so, and afterwards the shooting was still going, but we were smiling and talking with each other, and even singing together.”
And so it goes for the rest of the day, stories of finding a little calm in the chaos, our participants’ eagerness to take what they are learning into their homes, classrooms and clinics.
“My bishop,” a priest tells me, “wants everyone in the parish to learn what you are teaching.” The dean of the midwifery school says she will begin tomorrow to bring our work into the delivery room, to all “sage femmes” who will attend the births of the next generation.
CMBM Training, Days 2-3, continued
During the training, we do a drawings exercise, a sequence of three pages: one of “one’s self,” “one’s biggest problem” and “the solution to the problem”- and they are as always a revelation. They display what is inside each person and the images of one participant so often are a mirror for those of others.
The biggest problem of one physician here is shown as a clot of black guilt and fear and shame, of inhibited action and feeling buried under a mountain. She is straining for faith, toward a distant Jesus, and to do what must be done. But she feels unable to move or believe. In the third drawing all the conflicted colors of the mountain are striped in an arc du ciel, a rainbow. “ I was buried,” she says, “and now in this drawing I can see myself free, imagine myself again with my God.” (To learn more about our drawing exercises, read this post, “CMBM’s Drawing Exercise Resonates in Haiti,” when we introduced it in June.)
“I have in my drawings,” says Linda, the psychologist who coordinates our Haiti program, “dropped the mask of sunny happiness that I felt I had to put on. I have allowed myself to feel the loss of my father last week. And dancing and crying,” she adds, pointing to her third drawing, “I have found the authentic happiness inside myself.”
Checking in emotionally on the second day, my group members find their own choked-off voices- amazing how many cough and clear their throats and say they have forgotten how to say how they feel. They speak and are heard, listened, and they recognize that they are actually here with others who care and not alone. A nun and teacher who at first had felt so lonely as the only religious (woman) in the group realizes that she is not alone at all, “My images of pain and sadness are so similar to those of others. Showing you my drawings, telling you about them, I feel you are my sisters, and my brothers too.”
After the first day our participants are already using what they have learned. Several speak of “traffic meditation,” pulling over to the curb amidst Port-au-Prince’s daily madness, soft belly breathing (click here for a short guided meditation) until they are “calme” and “douce,” peaceful, soft and amazingly unhurried. A psychologist at odds with her teenage son reports asking him to breathe deeply with her and dissolving the tension that had led to fights, “…every night since the earthquake.” Several say that deep breathing and shaking and dancing had allowed them to sleep peacefully for the first time ever since January 12th.
Here is a short video of Linda Metayer, our Haiti Clinical/Program Director, describing what she feels Haitian trainees are gaining here:
(video by Mark Silverberg for CMBM)
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.”