In Palestine, the trauma never ends


This morning I awoke before sunrise and drove one hour to the Atlantic Ocean. I walked out onto a nearly deserted beach and watched the sunrise. I took the trip because I could.

For the past two weeks I had been in Palestine. I’m a psychotherapist and went to volunteer in training trauma interventions. My goal was to teach trainers, instructors and therapists techniques that I use when working with traumatized children. At least that was my initial plan.

As I set out to accomplish this goal it became apparent to me that I had overlooked something very critical. These adults and caretakers needed relief from their own trauma before they could continue their work with children.

This became very clear to me when I presented sand tray work to a group of professionals. Sand trays are a type of therapy that allows people to express the unconscious through using sand and toys that represent parts of what is going on in their life; it is largely symbolic. I use sand trays with children (and sometimes adults) so they can express themselves without having to use words. Children aren’t able to “talk out” their concerns. They talk through play. It is also an effective way to bypass defenses that stunt spontaneous expression of emotionally laden experiences.

As these adults sat on the floor and put their hands in the sand, their own stories began to emerge. When they were asked to talk about the experience of working with the sand, each of them shared a bit of their own pain. Most were surprised at how easy it was to create their story in a tray of sand. As they shared, their colleagues respectfully looked on and offered their support in reassuring words, and sometimes tears of empathy.

The trauma in Palestine is different from the type of trauma I have been treating for 24 years in the United States. In my work, the trauma usually ends, and this allows the trauma survivor enough distance from the event to safely work through it. In Palestine the trauma doesn’t end. There is no safe distance.

In Beit Hanina, East Jerusalem, I heard many stories from those I worked with. I heard stories from a woman who, as she crossed a checkpoint, requested that she only be searched by a female soldier. Her request was refused and she was made to wait five hours at the checkpoint, all the while being taunted by the soldiers. Finally, at the whim of the soldiers, she was allowed to pass.

I heard stories from a secretary who is living in the YWCA because her home is in Bethlehem, which has been closed under curfew. She cannot get home to her family. If she could, she might not get out again to return to work. It took some of the women who came to my training hours to arrive from only a few miles away. Some, from cities under curfew, could not attend at all.

I heard of land and homes seized – land that had been in the family for generations…just taken. I listened to so many stories. These women told me they don’t understand why the American government continues to fund their oppressor. They don’t understand why no one helps them. I felt the need to apologize for my country’s policies. These women are bright and strong. They carry on with their lives because they must and they support each other as best they can. They invited me into their homes, fed me, and offered me tea and coffee and many kindnesses that they are not afforded.

When I then asked these adults to decorate shoeboxes and place items that represent comfort to them inside, they did so thoughtfully and deliberately. When they finished, they took turns describing what things offer them comfort in this time of occupation. Again, they conveyed their truths in a way that was surprisingly simple. The rest of us witnessed this and supported each other as they revealed more of themselves. There was power in this sharing.

I then asked them to decorate folders. The outside was to represent how the world sees them as Arabs and Palestinians, while the inside was to depict their sense of themselves. The contrast was great and sad. The outsides of the folders had pictures of terrorists and beggars. On the inside of the folder were pictures of gardens, smiling faces and strong arms linked together. And again, as each person spoke of her folder, the group listened with support.

Although the training was for them as professionals, the women told me of concerns they have with their own children as well. One’s young son wears several coats to bed each night so that he can be ready if the soldiers come and he has to leave his home. Several others with young children notice that they now play “war.” The children vie to be Israelis in their play because that way they can have the tanks.

I stayed two nights in Jenin in a family’s home. The Israeli tanks are never far away; they stay just outside of the city, blocking roads. At night, the tanks come back into the city. One can hear them approach, and at times feel the house shake as they roll by. I waited to hear them grow fainter, to know they had moved on. Gunfire began at dusk and continued until dawn. I had difficulty sleeping, but the children were no longer fazed by the sounds of occupation.

We made sure we leave the training by 2 in the afternoon to allow plenty of time to reach home. Then we stayed in the house until the next morning. No one ventures out after dusk. I talked with a family that was forced to live in one room for several days as the soldiers took over their home. They were told to make no sounds and had to ask the soldiers for permission to use the bathroom. If a child cried, the soldiers came and ordered him to be silent. I saw the cemetery erected for the 200 or more victims of the incursion. The children use a mountain of cement rubble as their playground.

Since arriving in Tel Aviv I was always aware of my passport and visa papers. I noticed that as my stay continued, I checked more often as to their whereabouts. When the women and men told me their stories of occupation I found myself checking my pockets to make sure my passport was with me. I was ashamed that I was always preparing my exit, yet also comforted by my actions.

My host in Jenin took me upstairs from her apartment to meet more of her family members. Her mother and two brothers live here. They offered me tea or coffee and we sat and spoke of United States policies. It was clear that they know more than I do. While we continued our mint tea and discussion, in walked a young Arab man in an olive jacket with a kaffiyeh wrapped around his neck. I noticed his intense eyes and facial stubble and I flashed to portrayals I have seen on US television of militant Arabs. I continued to watch him and saw that instead of carrying an assault rifle he brought in a box of Pampers and excused himself to go diaper his young son.

The next day I went to Ramallah. Again, I went through checkpoints to arrive at the training site. I saw Arafat’s compound – or what was left of it. I can’t imagine someone doing this to our White House. I saw that someone had made a sculpture of the many cars destroyed by the tanks. They were stacked high towards the sky in defiance.

In Ramallah I met with teachers, professors, psychotherapists. They too shared their stories and asked me, “Why?” I still have no answer.

I listened to the experience of the young man who was shot while driving his car to work. After months of medical care he still has bullet fragments lodged in his body. And yet he works with children and he came to my training. I wondered what I could possibly say that has value.

facilitate support groups and teach simple techniques that benefit both adult and child. Anxiety reduction techniques, like purposeful breathing, could be used by parents and teachers with children. Ongoing support groups for parents and teachers could be formed.

Trauma interventions have to fit the situation; they have to be practical. Children need to know that there are still some things that they can count on to be the same. Providing structure in daily routines can accomplish this. Dinner at the same time each evening. A bedtime story after their bath. They also need to have control over some things in their lives. Choosing what socks to wear (even if they don’t match) or which fruit to have with lunch. Simple, safe choices that give a sense of control. Solving small problems to boost their sense of mastery and self-esteem. Hearing stories about their culture and spirituality so that Palestinians can continue to exist. To have a history and a future. To have pride in their culture.

I left Ramallah with another woman to return to Jerusalem. The checkpoint was very crowded. She asked me to show the soldier my American passport and see if he would let me through. I told him I am a doctor and must pass. I had begun learning how to manipulate the oppressors. They signaled me to pass, but stopped my Palestinian friend. I said that she was with me and they begrudgingly let her pass too. She apologized to me for the trouble and I was astonished. I told her that it is I who am sorry for her experiences. I told her I don’t know how she can go through this each day and she simply replied, “This is my home.”

Now I am home. The air of constant oppression and fear is gone. I am enjoying my freedom, but I don’t think I can be truly free while the courageous people in Palestine I met are not. I am already working on a plan to return.

I have not cleaned my shoes of the mud that remains from walking through the checkpoints. It doesn’t seem that it should be so easy for me to wash it away.