Creating a Culture of Healing: Recovering from Trauma in War-Ravaged Gaza

Article excerpt

Creating a Culture of Healingface=+Italic; Recovering from trauma in war-ravaged Gaza face=-Italic; face=+Italic; by face=-Italic; James Gordon

Entering Palestinian Gaza at the Erez Crossing, we step into an open-air prison--cinderblock walls, wire fences, locked gates, bunkers. Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers with automatic weapons stand guard. Upon questioning, we explain that we're a team of health professionals there to work with Palestinians who've been traumatized by war and its aftermath.

Some of the soldiers appear interested in our work. Others are curt, incurious. A few seem hostile: "Why go there, to be with them?" All are achingly young. They pore over our identification papers and passes, check names against lists, rummage through our suitcases. We move ahead. Metal doors click and clang. Announcements from loudspeakers punctuate our passage through a 300-yard-long metal shed.

It's a harsh welcome, but we're still excited to be here. Our group includes six U.S. psychotherapists and physicians, two staffers from the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., and two Kosovo psychiatrists. Our job in Gaza--as it was earlier in Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo, and most recently in Israel--is to help Palestinian health and mental health leaders cope with the psychological trauma of war themselves, and to teach them to integrate our approach into their own work. So far, we've trained some 2,000 doctors, nurses, psychologists, and teachers in the U.S. and around the world to use and teach our model, which integrates aspects of mind-body medicine (meditation, guided imagery, biofeedback, yoga) with self-expression and small-group support.

In Bosnia and Kosovo, as in post-9/11 New York City, most of our work took place after the worst of the destruction was over, with populations struggling to rebuild their lives. Here it's different. We're well aware, as Israeli shells scream overhead and we meet victims of bombs in Israel and tank fire in Gaza, that the conflict is ongoing--we aren't in a "post" traumatic situation at all. So there's a special urgency to our work with Israelis and Palestinians, a need to do our best to ensure that what we teach will become part of our trainees' own lives and professional work.

face=+Bold; Day 1: An Introduction to Gazaface=-Bold;

We spend the first two days getting oriented. I tell Mahmoud (to preserve confidentiality, I've altered first names and, in some instances, job titles), our Palestinian coordinator, that we'd like to meet some families and see the refugee camps where Palestinians have lived since 1948, when they were expelled from their villages in what's now Israel.

The next morning, we drive down Gaza's Mediterranean coast. It's Friday, the day of prayer, and the markets and mosques are crowded. The entire trip, with stops for trucks and donkey carts, takes just 45 minutes. The Gaza Strip, where more than 1.4 million people are jammed together, is only 25 miles long, stretching from the Erez Crossing at the north end of the strip to Rafah, which borders Egypt on the south.

As we walk around Rafah, in sight of Israeli settlements and gun towers--"don't point your cameras toward them," Mahmoud warns us--we gaze at dozens of broken buildings. Mahmoud explains that the buildings were bulldozed by Israeli forces. Some were the sites from which Qassam rockets (homemade weapons used by Hamas and other Palestinian militants) had been fired at Israeli settlements. Israeli officials destroyed other blocks of homes to create an open space between themselves and Palestinians in which potential assailants could be detected and eliminated. A young Palestinian social worker leads us past several acres of stones, fragments of picture frames, and children's shoes--the aftermath of Israeli destruction. Gesturing with a small, sad smile to a square of rubble indistinguishable from its neighbors, he says, "Welcome to my home."

Later that day, we turn north to Khan Younis, Gaza's second largest city, to visit Ahmed, a skilled electrician who is Mahmoud's cousin. …