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.