...reflections from a Compassionate Listener

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Thank you to the beautiful women of Palestine

...for your participation in the Compassionate Listening training. It was a great joy and honor to be with these women who came from Nablus, Jenin, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Hebron.  A special thank you to the Holy Land Trust for hosting/organizing this training, and to the Foundation for Global Community, the Tikvah Fund, and individual donors for making this a reality. The women expressed great appreciation for the 2.5 day training, and we'll be considering next steps...including Palestinian men and women together, Advanced Training, and training for leaders from Palestinian factions.. Stay tuned!

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Palestinian Boy

For the past two days I've been facilitating a Compassionate Listening training for Palestinian women from all corners of the West Bank. It's a privilege to listen to these strong and courageous women. I've heard a lot of stories about the children, so tonight, I decided to finish this post I began last week about Ibrahim, a fourteen year old boy whose parents we met two weeks ago, during our delegation. 

Our group of 25 compassionate listeners travelled to Jamal and Saadiye’s West Bank home to meet with members of "Wounded Crossing Borders" - Israeli Jews and West Bank Palestinians who have been wounded in the conflict, and have decided to reach out to do the hard work of seeking the humanity on the "other side". We were about forty people altogether, and we happily mingled on the patio, talking in small groups for the first hour, until we gathered for formal introductions and dialogue.

A Palestinian member introduced himself and told us that at the beginning it was very difficult for him to meet Israelis: “I was in prison 3 times and I was shot. I got an invitation to meet with Israelis at the Dead Sea. There have been many, many meetings, including in Bosnia, Switzerland, Jerusalem and in the West Bank.”

An Israeli member added: “We are forty members, working together for two and a half years now. ‘Working’ is a big word for us. Because we see this as a grassroots effort. We are, as you heard, wounded, and crossing borders. I am 85% disabled, and we’ve all spent much time in the hospital. Even now, it’s not so easy…our meetings are full of feelings and emotions. And I can say, is that we are friends. We visit each other. We don’t work on a political level, but we can’t avoid it either. Recently we worked on a document that expresses our values. We are all for a two state solution, and don’t believe in violence. Working people-to-people is not less important than anything else”.

Jamal’s brother Mohammad and sister-in-law (on the far right in the photo) looked quite agitated and depressed. Jamal invited them to speak to the group, so Mohammad shared their story: “The Israeli soldiers came to my house at midnight two nights ago. They surrounded the house for two hours, until 2:00am. Then they asked me to open the door. I have ten children, from age 1- 18. The soldiers asked me to wake all of the children up and to come outside of the house. They took my ID and looked at the IDs of all of the kids.

"Then they asked for my son Ibrahim, who is fourteen and a half years old. They took him with only a shirt, and nothing on his feet. I asked the soldiers if I could bring some clothes for Ibrahim, but they refused. They beat Ibrahim in front of all of his brothers and sisters, and put a blindfold on him and put him in the jeep. They took him to a nearby Israeli settlement called Karmi Tzur. I went to the Red Cross the next day to tell them what happened. That same day at 11:00 I got a call from Ofer prison to say that my son will be in court the next day. We went there about 5:30 am and stayed until 2:00 pm, waiting. When we got inside the court, they brought Ibrahim in, in handcuffs and footcuffs. They told us that they could not proceed with the trial because the report was not ready.

“Today we also went from 5:00am – 11:00am. As ususal, they cuffed his legs and hands, and his legs were bruised from the metal. The lawyer told Ibrahim to speak today and he told the judge that he had been beaten and threatened with electrocution, and that he had only admitted to throwing stones because he was tortured. He told the judge he did not do it.

"Today the court asked me to pay 1,500 shekels to release him (about $400). In addition, they said that every Sunday, Ibrahim must report to Gush Etzion police station from 4:00pm – 6:00pm. This is a child – not even 15 years old and I refused to let him go to Gush Etzion again. I refused to pay.”

Mohammad appealed to the Israeli members of Wounded Crossing Borders to come to the next court appointment, and speak on behalf of the family. They know that having Israeli civilians show up in court on your behalf would be a major event in their favor. But the Israelis told us that the case is complicated - that all is not as it seems. One of the men said, “We do our best to help each other to try to find solutions, but it’s complicated.” Apparently, one of the Israelis found out through army connections that there is strong evidence implicating young Ibrahim in the stone-throwing incident.

Jamal (our host and the boy’s uncle, in the photo on the right), said, “Last week, 25 Israeli soldiers surrounded me and my brother and beat us both. The children saw all of this – it happened close to our house. We live under the occupation – our homes are tear-gassed all of the time. We are prevented from going in and out of our village on a regular basis. The pressures on us are enormous. The children feel everything. They are frustrated. Throwing stones is a way the children release it. My brother, Mohammad, said to one of the soldiers, ‘I am an old man with 8 children, why are you hitting me?’”

We, Compassionate Listeners, managed  to continue breathing throughout this painful story. Ibrahim's mother was in tears and could barely speak. As the mother of a 17-year old son, my heart went out to her. It is so painful when we, as parents, cannot project our children. 

We found out two days later that Ibrahim was released from prison. Though the Israelis did not show up in court, they wrote a letter to the court about their long-standing relationship with Jamal’s family. The family was overjoyed with Ibrahim’s release. Apparently, hundreds of people came to welcome him home that evening.

Although this story had a positive ending, I was left with troubling thoughts. At Jamal’s house, when the boy’s imprisonment was being discussed, it was clear that the Israeli members had doubts about his innocence. But at no time did anyone stand up against or mention the beating and threat of electrocution. Let’s remember – this is a fourteen year old boy. And this is not an isolated story. I’ve spent too much time in Palestine to know that. 

According to Amnesty International in an April 2010 press release: 
"Palestinian children face routine beatings, torture and strip searches.
While some children only spend a few days in detention before their release, others could end up spending years behind bars, the report added.
"These measures run counter to international laws, especially the [United Nations] Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Israel has signed and agreed to," said lawyer Khaled Kuzmar.
There are currently 7,200 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, including 306 children under the age of 18."

I have a issue with imprisoning children. Nearly twenty years ago, during the first Intifada, I admit to taking part in "unarresting" Palestinian youth. It was 1991, and our delegation was staying in the National Palace Hotel in the heart of Palestinian East Jerusalem. There were almost daily skirmishes in the vicinity, and one day, our group was returning back to the hotel when we saw scores of Palestinian youth gathered in the street outside - the numbers quickly mounting. Israeli soldiers had arrested some teenagers, and an atmosphere of fear, panic and chaos ensued as more and more youth streamed into the street to protest. 

Some of us ventured into the crowd for a better look at what was going on. I soon found myself close to the military jeeps, and any time I witnessed a Palestinian youth arrested and placed in a jeep, a group of us would surround the jeep, pull the child out, and push him through the crowd behind us so that he could escape. To me, it felt like that story of the hummingbird who tried to put out a fire by dropping a beak's worth of water on it at a time. These efforts didn't amount to much, but it certainly meant a lot to the 14 and 15 year olds who ate dinner with their families that night instead of sitting in prison. 

1990 and 1991 were defining years for me. I had the opportunity to stay with Palestinian families, sometimes under Israeli curfew - which would trap me in a West Bank or Gaza home for hours or days. There was nothing to do but visit and listen to all of the people in the immediate vicinity. And I was shocked with what I heard and saw. Every single Palestinian family had many horror stories concerning life under occupation. There was simply no way to rationalize it. My Israeli friends had told me that if a Palestinian family was hurt, there had to be a reason for that. But I spoke with many mothers and elderly people during those years, since the husbands and older sons were often in prison, and I was left with no doubt that the violence was systemic.  

To this day, almost 20 years later, I see that it's very difficult for Israeli Jews to believe how harsh the occupation is. People that I speak with want to believe that if a Palestinian home is destroyed, or a family is beaten, or a child arrested, that they did something to deserve that treatment. Israelis predominantly see themselves as the victims in relation to Palestinians, and it's difficult for anyone who defines oneself as a victim to simultaneously see himself as an aggressor. Israeli leaders assure their citizens over and over that if an innocent Palestinian is hurt, it falls under the unfortunately broad banner of "collateral damage" in the line of self-defense. 

I don't hear many people talking about electrocution, except the boys themselves, prisoner rights groups, and international human rights agencies who collect testimonies from the youth. 
(To read Israeli soldiers' testimony directly, click on Breaking the Silence/Shovrim Stika; for testimonies from the children and reports on the subject, click on Defense for Children International). 

I interviewed a group of Palestinian college students today - all young men, who told me that most of the Palestinian youth in prison are boys from high-conflict areas - including refugee camps, Hebron, and towns like Jamal's where contact with the Israeli military presence is the highest. Indeed, Jamal's family lives in a high conflict zone. He wrote us after the delegation to let us know that his wife's nephew had been arrested and released after three days...and so it goes.  

I grieve for all the youth in this story - including the young Israeli soldiers who are asked to do the impossible by their government. There is simply no military solution...

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Nostalia and thoughts from the bus

I have weeks of editing and writing from the delegation to catch up with for the blog. This, however, is a personal entry. I am sitting on an Israeli bus. My destination is the beautiful hills of Galilee, overlooking the Sea. I’m going north for an interlude with dear Israeli friends for a couple of days to visit and relax.
Without being too scientific about it, I figure this must be about my 30th trip to Israel. And, sitting on this bus, I’m nostalgic. On my first flight over at age 19, I was sitting towards the back of the plane, engaged in conversation with a group of young travelers like myself. I was the only “first-timer” to Israel among them, so I was eager to pick up any tips and insights I could. After several hours of conversation, one of the guys looked at me, shook his head sadly, and said, “Israel is going to eat you up. You’re too nice for this country.” That worried me.
But it turned out that he was wrong. Not that I wasn't nice, but I found myself in a nest of nice Israelis. I ended up on a small kibbutz in the Judean hills, with kind Europeans, and sweet Israelis who valued my presence and made my time there a memorable experience that I’ll be forever grateful for. One of my former bosses in the orchard became a friend, and I even bring delegations to the kibbutz every few years, to walk the ruins that date back 3,000 years, meet some kibbutzniks, walk in their beautiful, intentional community and gardens, and listen to their stories.
But everyone here knows that the kibbutzim are (were) a different and unique slice of Israeli life. Especially the small, less wealthy ones where you didn’t find snobbery and rank issues that persisted elsewhere. That was the first Israel that I came to know, and it was a fit. It was a very sheltered life with 250 people on a huge piece of land. My love for the ancient “bible” terraces, archeology, and the Jerusalem hills was born that year. 
When I returned to Jerusalem at age 22, I met a vastly more multidimensional Israel, and it was a shock. I can’t tell you how many buses I missed, on account of the Israeli habit of pushing and shoving themselves through the bus doors as if their lives depended on boarding. It was not uncommon to see buses drive off with limbs and body parts hanging out of the hydraulically controlled doors.
Boarding my bus today, at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, brought it all back. The fight to board is something that is hard for me to engage in. And the cost of not engaging is that you may be left behind. My tiny, even insignificant experience at the bus station today, is a part of daily life for many Israelis, who use the practical bus system extensively in their small country. I’m afraid I didn’t do any better today than I did all those decades ago. And I nearly got left behind.
As it turned out, I did discover at age 22 that I was too sensitive to live comfortably in Israel. Nothing in my younger years had hardened me for the daily realities here. That year, it was Israel’s first invasion into Lebanon, and all of the horrible events that followed. I remember bursting out in tears on buses frequently – usually on the hour when the news came on and had nothing positive to offer. One time, just after the Sabra-Shatilla massacre, an elderly Israeli man called out to the bus driver, “Turn down the news – it’s making this girl cry!”
Yelling seemed to be the national outlet – for everything. The wars, the holocaust, two thousand years of “issues.” I tried to stay emotionally stable despite the daily dose of yelling. Anyone who remembers life in Jerusalem 30 years ago may smile with a shared memory. I was yelled at in all the places where one engages in regular life – there was no way to avoid it…I was yelled at in the grocery store, at the bus stop, book stores, the clothing stores, in the streets, even in the library…
My own mother once broke off an engagement because her fiancé yelled at her. I managed better than she would have. But I won’t deny the toll it took. I never asked for, nor wanted, citizenship here, but the problem was well acknowledged among those who did. Many new immigrants from North America did not last more than a year here, because of the aggressiveness of society. Maybe some will remember the campaigns to help Israelis learn to treat others kindly. I remember a radio jingle from that campaign that ended with a melodic plea to “be pleasant!” But I had already purchased my exit ticket.
No need to go into all of the reasons why there is such aggression here – it’s been studied and explained for decades. People are much more courteous than 30 years ago. But it can still be hard for a softy like me. On this bus I’m riding on, half of the passengers are soldiers with their guns awkwardly tucked to their sides or between their legs. Israel is a militaristic environment, with more and more sophisticated weapons. Right now I’m surrounded by M-16s...

Monday, June 7, 2010

Friendship across the Gaza Border: “Hope Man” and “Peace Man” start a movement.

Over two years ago, an Israeli man named Eric Yellin, living in Sderot, created a blog with a Gazan man from Sajaia Refugee Camp. They co-authored the blog anonymously, under the names “Hope Man” and “Peace Man”. The blog spurred a movement, now an organization called “Other Voice”.

On June 3, 2010, our Compassionate Listening delegation met with two remarkable women from Other Voice, in the community center in Moshav Netiv HaAsara, an Israeli community that literally bumps up against the Gaza border. (In the photo on the left, you can see the first of three walls separating the community from Gaza...the town of Beit Lahiya is only 400 meters away). 
Here is an introduction to Other Voice, taken from their website:
 "Other Voice" consists of citizens who live in Sderot and Israeli communities surrounding the Gaza Strip. It is a non-partisan group; we are not affiliated with any political party or organization. Other Voice represents a wide array of the public and its members come from diverse backgrounds and hold a broad range of opinions and beliefs.

We live in a violent and unstable region, in which thousands of people from both sides of the border have been killed, wounded and hurt, including children, the elderly and other innocent civilians. The ongoing violence and escalation of the conflict have deepened the mutual fear and hatred, and destroyed feelings of personal safety. We call for creative action that will bring about a long-term and real solution to the region. We call for creative action that will take the civilians out of the circle of violence. 

Meet Roni (left) and Julia, from Other Voice:
“You are visiting us here today in Moshav Nativ HaAsara, my home, with 480 families with an average of four children per family. We grow vegetables, flowers and fruit. We also grow vegetables for seed production.

Beginning ten years ago, life became much more difficult. Before that, we had good relationships with our Gazan neighbors. They walked over to work here. We used to visit them and celebrate their holidays and special occasions with them. These relationships were undermined from all of the military involvement over the years, and the greater political conflict.

In 2005, our government decided to withdraw the Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip, because the Palestinians wanted us out. And the day after the withdrawal, we had a rocket sent over. It was a direct hit, and killed 22 year old Dana Galkowicz, who was visiting her boyfriend here in our community.
We are living under constant threat – we never know when it will not be a miracle. We’re all deeply affected. If I’m walking down the room, I’m always thinking about where I will go if I hear the rocket alarm. A Thai worker was killed by a rocket just two months ago, here in our community. 
(photo: Israeli soldiers pack up for patrol during our listening session. These soldiers are stationed at the community center.)
Children are quite fearful – many can’t sleep at night. Even so, even with all this uncertainty and fear, no one leaves our community. We have many rental houses here and not one is available. We have a very strong and supportive community. Some in the community think that the only way to be is very strong militarily…and some of us think we need to come to terms with our neighbors and have a good relationship. I’m in the latter camp.
I’m originally from England and my parents came here when I was 8 years old. My husband is an agriculturalist. The Israeli government asked my husband to go to help Israeli settlers in the Sinai (now Egypt) to develop agriculture. My husband left and we eventually joined him for five years there – near Yamit.

My youngest daughter was five years old at the time, and did not know any Arabic or English. An Egyptian girl in her class handed out birthday invitations to every girl in class, except for our daughter. It took our two families two years to break down the defenses and become friends. Our house became a meeting place for Egyptians and Israelis. From my experience in the Sinai, I realized the importance of dialogue. When Camp David was signed, our community was evacuated, and reestablished here, directly on the Gaza border.

In our group, Other Voice, we have different projects. We have friends in Gaza who we can only talk with over the phone or the internet. They’ve come a few times to be with us in Israel. There are many obstacles but we are very determined.

Julia Chaitin:
I live in Kibbutz Urim, which is 15 minutes from the Gaza border.  I am a professor of Social Work at Sapir Academic College. The College is just two kilometers away from the Gaza Strip and has received many rockets.

There was a red alert (signaling a rocket attack), and a student at the college tried to hide under a tree, and he was hit directly. We’ve had so many injured. Their worst effect is the psychological effect - 75-80% of the people here are diagnosed with PTSD.

The communities here are strong, with lots of educational support. There is no-one who lives here who hasn’t had a close call, who doesn’t know someone killed or wounded. My field is the effects of long-term trauma on people. I’ve done many many studies, including the last ten years on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
(Photo: mural on a rocket shelter on the moshav with the words: "from love, peace is born")

I came from the United States in 1972 when I was nineteen years old. I have three children and a grandson. My first war was the 1973 war. Ten of us couples got married that summer on the kibbutz, and on the first day of the war, 2,500 of our soldiers were killed. My husband was called for reserve duty, and he was gone for 6 months…we had only been married for one month. He was on the Egyptian front. I was okay through all of the wars, but I started having a really hard time when my youngest son joined the Army. (I consider myself a pacifist.)

He did go in the army – into a combat unit, and he ended up in the last war with Lebanon - on the border. I spoke to him ten times a day on the phone. He was terrified and asked what I could do. I told him "I can speak with you".

When I came here I believed that Palestinians hated us and wanted to kill us. I went to Hebrew school and studied but I never learned about Palestinians. I did a lot of things, but all with Jewish Israelis. Since the 1990s I have been much more active and have gotten to know and work with Palestinians.

Conditions in Gaza are one thousand times worse than in the West Bank, if you can believe it. Over two years ago, a man named Eric Yellin in Sderot, created a blog with a Gazan man. They co-authored the blog anonymously, under the names “Hope Man” and “Peace Man”. This was the birth of Other Voice. Eric is the founder. I joined two years ago. (Photo: the Walls separating Gaza and Netiv HaAsara)

We have 150 people in Other Voice and the core group is about 15-20 people. We sit in someone’s home or in Sapir College, in a circle, take a cell phone and put it in the middle of the room, and we would speak with our friends in Gaza….men and women, old, young, secular, professional, religious. Since 2007 since Hamas took over, it’s considered an enemy entity, and we are not allowed in and they are not allowed out. All of the borders are sealed. That’s why the lifelines of the telephone and internet are so important.

One very “normal” thing we do is that we all play Farmville on Facebook. I give Ahmad an olive tree…they give us things. All of my neighbors in Farmville are Palestinians in Gaza.
Over the last few days they’ve asked that we don’t call them. Eric has managed to get permits for young people in Gaza for two seminars that we’ve held now. The young people feel caught between Hamas, Fatah, Israel and Egypt. So they lie and say that they’re going to seminars, instead of to meetings with us (Israelis). These last months some of the young people have been questioned by Hamas.

During the war, a number of us came out against it. Within our group, some folks thought the war was a necessity. We sent an open letter to Bibi Netanyahu a few months ago, calling for an end to the siege. Please download the letter and send it to everyone you know. 

The flotilla was a horrible thing. But at least people who have never talked about the siege of Gaza or wanted to think about it, are now talking about it. Just Monday, when the flotilla event happened, our two Israeli friends who live near the Gaza Border went to protest against  the Israeli attack. There was a much larger contingent there of pro-Israeli supporters, and our friends were threatened.

One is a single mother in the moshav, and she was told, “if you don’t write a letter apologizing, we have ways to see that you will no longer be able to live here.” Our reality here is much more polarized, much more black and white. That’s what we’re living here with now, in Israel.  
Please send our letter to anyone and everyone you think would be interested in our work. There are enough of us here who are fueling the conflict, and we don’t need more of them. But if it were up to me, I wold stop U.S. aid to Israel. I do this because I love my country, not because I’m against my country. The message from Monday, from the flotilla incident, should be, “stop the siege, life and dignity for all.”

Roni: Last week I returned from a family trip to Poland – to concentration camps, etc. My thoughts kept returning to this: that we cannot let this happen, given what happened to us as a people. Other family members said, “but you can’t compare.” But it’s not about comparison…it doesn’t have to be as bad as the holocaust for us to be concerned.

Julia: Israeli Professor Dan Bar-On wrote a lot during his lifetime about the “hierarchy of suffering.” Being in the victim situation lets you off the hook. Trying to compare suffering is a no win. And you see it everywhere: “Oh, you weren’t in a concentration camp, you were just in the Ghetto…” and these discussions really happen. I try to tell my students to get off the victim track.

During the second Intifada (Palestinian uprising), there was one front line street in the Israeli neighborhood of Gilo that was getting all the fire from Beit Jala, the Palestinian town across the valley. There was a joke going around at that time that went: okay we’ll sit together in the terrace then…okay, we’ll sit in the living room then… okay we’ll sit in the kitchen then…okay I guess we’ll sit in the freezer – anyone want some schnitzel? We can’t get away from it. We’ve tried to solve it militarily and there is no military solution. The rockets from Hizbollah almost hit the center of Israel. The next rockets from Gaza will hit Tel Aviv – they’ll be GRAD rockets that are much more sophisticated. I think I have a right not to run to a bomb shelter 3-4 times/day. And I think it’s their right in Gaza to live in peace and dignity.

Even if we sign the peace treaty tomorrow, we’re still going to be working all this out for hundreds of years – the fear and dehumanization.

Roni: I have 13 grandchildren and 7 of them live here. Anything I do today, I do for them….for their future. (photo on the right: Israeli soldiers stationed at the Moshav.)

(note: Julia is also senior staff member at the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development (NISPED) – an NGO that works on peace and sustainable human development between Jews and Palestinians within Israel and between Israel/Palestine. See their products that are co-designed, co-designed, co-produced.) 

Read Julia's article in the Washington Post, written during the Gaza War.  

All photos taken by Leah Green and Ellen Greene

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Sunday, June 6, 2010

Life near the Gaza Border

Life and Trauma Treatment near the Gaza Border
(photos by Leah Green and Ellen Greene - below, Gaza Wall and Border)

On June 3rd, our Compassionate Listening delegation visited Shaar HaNegev Psychological Services Center, located at Sapir College in Sderot (near the Gaza border). This is the most important psychological center in the Northwest Negev for those suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They also have an educational unit that works with the schools, kindergardens, and preschool children, including physiotherapy and occupational therapy.
Tvi, Fajerman, Senior Clinical Psychologist and General Director
There are 230 therapists working in this project. We’re studying a lot about what happens here. We have no access to Gaza, we tried – we wanted to help train trauma specialists there too, but we are denied access. We know that the suffering in Gaza is more than here.
I work here at the Center in Sderot, but I don’t live here. So at night I am safe. Sometimes we have questions, what does it mean to work in this kind of psychotherapy - sometimes you’re with your client working and suddenly you have a rocket alarm…all the therapists and all the clients and all the staff run into the shelter and have very interesting meetings and discussions there.

When the rockets fall, and you go to the site and try to help, you also pick up “Acute Stress Response.” What happens with those who help? The helpers run to the site – with an illusion as if they are totally safe. Five years ago a person was wounded and we saw that the helpers returned with a feeling that they really helped a lot, and that it was something they were removed from. We had a meeting a few days later, and I asked them how this experience was for them. And suddenly some of them started to cry. We see this phenomenon that the helper becomes “superhuman” and loses all fear as they are helping. We work with them to return them to their normal state – the first step is to realize that they suffered too.
We think a lot about ongoing trauma…The situation that we are in is not like September 11th in the United States - one very traumatic event, and you treat people for post traumatic stress. Here, there is no “post” – it’s ongoing traumatic stress disorder. I treated a 4 year old, and in one of the last sessions, there was a rocket attack. She jumped, and she looked at me, and I kept my balanced attitude. Just seeing the mother or the care-giver staying calm, the child will stay calm too. We accomplished wonderful work with this family, and one year later, a Qassem Rocket fell on their home and destroyed part of the home. The next year a third rocket fell and wounded the father. At times like this I ask myself, what am I doing? How can I help when there is no end to the trauma?

Or Tal, Staff Psychologist
I’ve worked here for six years. I have two small children. I live in Kibbutz nearby.
I had an experience here a year ago, during the war in Gaza. In the war, every time when I met with parents and children, I really identified with them, but not totally, because at 3:00pm or 4:00pm I would go home and be safe, since I do not live here where people have experienced the worst of the rocket attacks. But we received bullet-proof vests and helmets and it was clear to me that I would continue my work – continue coming to the center.
I was in the car driving when a rocket alarm went off. My kids were asleep in the car. I had 1 minute to get to a shelter (here at Sapir College, you have 15 seconds to get to a shelter, just to show you it matters where you live). In that one minute, I had to choose what to do. You have no control of what will happen. I was screaming at my 5 year old to wake up and I took my small son into the house. This was a very crucial experience for me, not just to empathize with the people I work with, but to feel it in my entire body. After that, there was no question that I can identify with what people go through here…

Shimona, Educational Psychologist
I started working here 8 years ago and as of 6 years ago, I now live in a kibbutz close to the Center. It’s terrifying when the rocket alarm goes off. It literally says “red color, red color….” Even small children, age 2 or 3, know that they have to get to a shelter. When I look at my children, in a way it makes me feel proud, but in another way, I have to ask myself hard questions. Why am I living in a place where I’m exposing my kids to this danger? In the difficult times, as I’m driving in my car, or walking along a street or in a park, literally every 200 meters, the thought comes to my mind, “if the alarm goes off now, where will I run to?” Depending on where I am I may have 15 seconds or a minute. So it’s a constant process in my mind.
I don’t want to talk about politics – I know the Gazans suffer much more than we do…
Three years ago, I gave birth to a child. I also had a 6 year old. I was near a safe place in a park when the rocket alarm went off, and I had 15 seconds to get to a safe place. I had a 1 month-old baby. What will I do? I told my friend “Take the baby” – I knew my friend knew what to do. And then I ran again to my older child to see that she was safe, but I knew I was out of time. It was the worst ten seconds in my life. I know it sounds strange, but those ten seconds confirmed my decision to stay and live here. I don’t think I can explain exactly why. For me, it confirmed that there is no safe place – it’s an illusion we try to tell ourselves in life – that we can create safety.

At the beginning of our work here, we taught guided imagery with the kids. We told them to “go to a safe place,” and the kids would say, “but there is no safe place.” So we changed the language to a “calmer place, when you feel good about yourself.” When I accept that there is no true “safe space”, I am forced to see that this moment is all I truly have. I can bring love and beauty to the world in every moment. Living here reminds me of my higher purpose – I want to love, to do good in the world.

The main problem here is the ongoing trauma. Sometimes we’ve had 50 qassem rockets per day. We have no theories for ongoing trauma. So we’re inventing it. The rocket alarms started 5 years ago.  
I had a patient recently who was 5 years old – she lived in Sderot, the most frequently bombed city. She wouldn’t use red in her paintings or in her language, because the alarm literally screams “Red alert, red alert”. So she had to block out the word “red” entirely.
In my psychologist’s hat, I can look and feel strong, but it’s a very different story as a mother. Being a psychologist can give me a feeling of safety and strength. I have a role, a helper…but as a parent, it’s completely different. When my young son was one year old, I picked him up during a rocket alarm and ran to a shelter. I was out of breath and panting. When we got inside, I looked at him, and he was panting exactly like I was. The kids mirror exactly what we do.

Why am I choosing to live here? Here, the community is highly important. As an educational psychologist, I believe that mental health is in community. There’s a sense of not being alone here. In difficult times for example, we prefer to eat in the park – we eat together. It’s less safe than to be at home, but we feel that sense of safety with each other. There are always people to talk with and share your experiences.
Many people live and also work here. It’s hard to always do the right thing in our jobs. There was a bomb alarm once, here at Sapir College where our Center is. Everyone knew where the rocket fell. Many of the teachers panicked and left their students and ran to their children, who are in day care or school here. The school needed so much assistance at that time. It’s not right to judge those teachers – it’s a natural reaction. Some of them were treated like traitors….we did a lot of work in the teacher’s lounge to bring healing to that situation.

When there’s a rocket attack, first, we go to the place of the attack. We help the people to vent – we let them speak - what were they thinking; what were they doing…what were they wearing. Next, we help them to normalize their experience – letting them know that whatever they did was okay – yelling, crying, peeing in their pants, etc. Saying it’s okay. If they are teachers, we talk about what they might expect to happen with their students, down the road. Often, the ones who used to talk a lot, now become silent, and the quiet ones become talkative. We tell them what to expect and what to look for.
I wanted to assist people from the Gaza strip who wanted to come for trauma training. They even asked me if I agreed to take part in it. But we were prevented from doing this.

PTSD is a felt sense of being injured or in danger of death. Israel is not safe in general. If I live in Jerusalem, there could be a suicide bus bombing, and if I live in the north, I could get hit from a Hizbullah rocket from Lebanon. You find a cavalier attitude – “drink today, we have no idea what will happen tomorrow.” We know that much of this comes from the experience in the holocaust and the famine and hard times in Europe and even here in the early days of the country.

In Sderot, very old kids, sometimes teenagers, want to sleep with their parents. We used to say, that’s wrong. Nowadays, we’ve changed our minds. It’s okay for your kids to be with you for periods of time, but we recommend that they sleep in a mattress next to the parents, not between the parents. We do what we can to make things easier...

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Describing the Indescribable - Thoughts and Feelings from the "Holy Land", by John Shaffer

There is no way to adequately describe in words the experience of being here with Leah, Cathy and Yael, in the "Holy Land", the land of history, the land of the foundations of three major religions, the land of love and strife, goodwill, open arms and pain, deep pain, anger and fear.  
You would have to look into our eyes, and see with your "eyes", you would have to listen to our words, and hear with your "ears", you would have to touch my heart, and let me touch yours, and do the same for the scores of people of all ages we have met, touched, listened to, been a part of at the level of heart while we have been here. You and I are privileged to be a part of something grand that is in the process of being born, and I     have never heard it said more clearly than by our compassionate angels guiding us, instructing us and helping us here.  Their work is truly remarkable.  You feel it yourself, deep down to your toes, and you hear and see it in the others with whom you are travelling.  
We share in warmth, and love, laughter and tears, and we see and hear and feel it in the warmth, and love and laughter and tears of the others, the Palestinians, the Israelis, and others with whom we have been brought together in this amazing trip. We all experience the feeling we have been truly blessed to have been born in this time and this Earth, this beautiful globe, with all its diversity - each of us in our way, awakening to be an entry point for compassion, compassion even in the face of anger and hurt and fear, or as others might say, to be an entry point for the light of the Universe, or the hand of God, or the Way of the Tao, or whatever you might choose to call it.   
Shalom, Salaam, Peace Be with You. John

(John is an attorney and mediator from Bellevue, Washington. Photo: Cathy Keene and John Shaffer, photo by Ellen Greene)

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Palestinian Refugee Children perform for Compassionate Listeners

Yesterday, during our visit to al-Aroub Refugee Camp in the West Bank, they held three performances for us. This is a short video of the children performing their national dance, the dabke. Most of the group stayed overnight in the Camp with families, where they enjoyed the warm hospitality of their hosts. They arrived back to our hotel this morning, tired, thrilled with their experiences, and as one participant said, "it was beyond words...I have never experienced such incredible hospitality." 

Today our five days in the West Bank with Palestinians and Settlers is coming to an end. As soon as I have some time I have to backtrack and report on our meetings with settlers and Palestinians, which were all very special. We're heading to Ein Karem today, and tomorrow I'll be reporting from Sderot, as well as a small Israeli village closest to the Gaza border. We'll be meeting with Israeli psychologist, trauma specialists, and Israelis working actively for peace by cultivating relationships with their Gazan neighbors, across the border. Stay tuned! 

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