The NewYork Times
Jamil sounds different on the second day of the attack. It isn’t the occasional voice-obscuring thunder in the background — Israeli shells exploding near his Gaza City apartment. It’s a subtler note, a bewildered, despairing flatness I have never heard in the six years that this kind, understated, endlessly resourceful child psychologist has coordinated our center’s work with Gaza’s psychologically traumatized population.
“Do you know our team member Waleed?” he asks. I do. The image arises of a sweet, soulful young social worker who cares for traumatized kids.
“He has been killed,” Jamil tells me.
Gaza has never been easy. Most of its 1.5 million people, the families of refugees from Israel in 1948, live many to a room in buildings separated by alleys little wider than a big man’s shoulders. Even in 2002, when I first visited, when tens of thousands of laborers still streamed daily into Israel, unemployment was as high as 40 percent and most residents received supplementary food from the United Nations.
Since Hamas won elections in 2006 and Israel has sealed Gaza’s border, conditions have grown much worse. Unemployment reached 60 percent or more; fuel, food and water were often in short supply. Fed by impotent rage, family violence and clan conflicts escalated.
In 2007, we surveyed 500 children. Fully 70 percent said they had witnessed a killing — by Israelis or in factional fighting. Almost 30 percent had post-traumatic disorder: agitation, inability to concentrate or sleep, violent outbursts, nightmares of traumatic events and flashbacks of them during the day, withdrawal from ordinary activities and emotional numbing.
Still, Jamil, Waleed and the other 90 professionals we trained felt happier and more hopeful as they used the techniques that our international faculty taught them: slow deep breathing to quiet anxiety; guided imagery to seek intuitive solutions to intractable problems; words, drawings and movement to express and share their feelings.
Our Gaza clinicians soon began to share what was helping them in hundreds of small groups that they created for thousands of traumatized children and adults. On my recent visits, they introduced me to mothers who, learning in our groups to relax, were able to successfully breast-feed babies who had been failing to thrive; to a teenage boy whose group leader had taught him mental images that gave him alternatives to suicidal rock throwing at Israeli tanks.
Now, two weeks after the initial bombings, with almost 900 dead, several thousand wounded, and Israeli ground forces swarming Gaza, it is hard to find hope. Yet in the midst of despair, many of our colleagues do find some.
“When the bombs fall,” Jamil tells me, “my children and I breathe deeply, and then we share our feelings. We have each other — our families and our Mind-Body team, too — and of course we have to trust in God.” And then his voice rises, and he is asking about my family and planning for the time when we will return to Gaza, to train 150 more clinicians. “We will need them so much more,” he says.
He’s getting ready to sign off: “The children are crying.” He thanks me for listening and for encouraging our Israeli colleagues — Arabs and Jews — to get in touch with him.
As we hang up, I remember what another Gazan colleague told me not long ago: “In our Scripture, it is written that when you do not have hope, you look for it in the face of your friend.”
James S. Gordon, a psychiatrist, is the founder and director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington and the author of “Unstuck".