Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti and Gaza: Understanding Crisis and Resilience

The devastating events of the recent earthquake in Haiti linger in my mind as I write this note today. My hopes and prayers are with the people of Haiti and all who are trying to assist with emergency relief work there... it feels odd being in the serenity of Gaza amidst all this.

Walking back home at midnight after a spicy falafel and creamy gelato from my favorite street vendors, I feel a strange sense of familiarity in the dim-lit streets of Gaza City. I’ve come to feel more comfortable walking alone at night exploring the neighborhoods and getting to know the city better, even though I lose my way home regularly, getting back on track only moments later (through the familiar sights and sounds); oddly it feels far safer than most North American cities I’ve lived in, perhaps due to the constant security presence and the warmth of everyday people here.

Even with my video camera in hand, I simply smile at onlookers making eye contact gracefully, and introduce myself during the shoot to make them comfortable around me. I try to disarm any suspicions with my hilarious command of broken Arabic and their imagined curiosity of my bollywood roots. Shopkeepers, cooks, waiters, and men smoking sheesha while watching Real Madrid vs. Barcelona playing football on TV, often invite me into their street side cafes urging me to come back and visit the next day… so is the spirit and hospitality of this place.

Watching online coverage of the situation in Haiti, it’s hard to come to terms with the immense loss of life and chaos of the tireless relief efforts underway. Only a year ago, Gaza suffered a similar crisis with devastating bombings of major infrastructure and over 1400 killed (and over 5000 injured) by Israeli air-raids and shelling during 23-days of the war here. As I travel around this small strip of land by the sea, one can still see destroyed homes and crumbling buildings that once housed government ministries, schools, Red Crescent hospitals, and factories. I try to probe a bit deeper by meeting individuals who lost their homes and loved ones, and professionals who stayed on the job despite the danger to their lives, social workers who struggled to deal with traumatized families, and mothers who tried to explain to their children why this was happening to them. While many physical and emotional scars remain from the shock of this unprecedented war, Gazans on the whole have been incredibly resilient through it all for reasons I still struggle to understand.

I can only imagine how families in Haiti are struggling to find loved ones among the ruins of their homes, relief workers struggling to cope with the immense catastrophe, and government agencies finding ways to restore essential services. No comparison is possible between such catastrophes – each with its own unique loss and human narratives. One can only begin to capture and learn from each one, respecting the impact of these individual catastrophes among the societies living through them. Gaza is a small place with a population of only 1.5 million of which over a half are children. Everyone I spoke to here often vividly describe the first few minutes of the beginning of the war like an earthquake shattering everything around them. Many children remember the time accurately (11:30am on December 27, 2009) and shuddered with fear a year later expecting the same, asking their parents to let them stay home.

No place was safe in Gaza on that clear sunny day in late December; everything everywhere seemed to be targeted with no apparent rationale. Besides offices and homes even ambulances were destroyed and doctors and patients miraculously evacuated many hospitals with only minutes of notice. Many people mentioned the strange intuition of their own cats who first became aware of impending disaster, and continued to signal their anxiety during the war before each bombing. Later these same cats would place their paws on the anxious children to calm their fears. Such are the odd stories I would hear driving in taxis and in my visits to schools, community centers, and people’s homes in the Gaza Strip.

I met an old woman in Beit Hanoun, still sitting outside her destroyed home having lost much of her family, living in a tin shack with only goats and bare essentials to sustain her. Leaving her after the interview, I tried to kiss her hand to express my grief for her (I had forgotten that this is simply not appropriate in the Arab world); she gently pulled away trying not to make me feel too awkward about that moment, but gazed deeply at me as if I were her own. Many such stories are happening in Haiti each day as we speak, only to be revealed as relief workers and journalists begin to probe human narratives more deeply and help people rebuild their shattered lives.

Haiti is no stranger to many natural and man-made disasters, but this earthquake is the most powerful and devastating for over 200 years. It has already left a scar through the country in ways that may take generations to recover. Yet I believe Haitians are also just as resilient, and will find ways to cope despite the presumably short-lived international humanitarian assistance. Haitians will likely find local community-driven solutions and use the crisis to begin the process of healing and rebuild their county in ways we cannot imagine. Gaza is doing just that despite the economic and political blockade, the ongoing Israeli siege and internal infighting among its political factions.

Mond and I visited Mustafa, the 9-year old in Bait Hanoun again to the delight of his grandmother and friends. We spoke to his father about his eye surgery and tried to arrange a meeting with his local doctor to gain more details on his possible treatment abroad. I remembered to bring my small digital video camera and proceeded to show Mustafa how to use it. We were immediately surrounded by all the kids and elders in his neighborhood; its not easy teaching with everyone else giving their own instructions on where to shoot. Mustafa gradually warmed upto the challenge and started mastering the complex controls on this little device, learning to frame his shots, zoom and capture photos and videos of children playing marbles along the roadside. I showed a few other kids how to use the camera, but asked Mustafa to be their trainer from here onwards. He took on that responsibility easily despite his shyness.

The next day I took Mustafa along with me to one of my meetings at the Al-Qattan Center for the Child in Gaza City. He was quite shy to come alone with me without his father, so we let him accompany us on this trip. I met with some of the directors of the center and arranged to have a workshop there the following day. They took us around on a tour of the gleaming new center, completed in late 2005 after many years of delays due to the blockade. The center provides a rich library, educational programs, and outreach services to kids and parents in Gaza. It’s a rare place for children to come in Gaza, a miracle that it even exists. As Mustafa and I walked along modern multi-colored spaces in the naturally-lit center full of curious kids engaged in play, Mustafa took my lead in capturing video as our guide showed us around. Mustafa would often get distracted with children watching cartoons or making paper montages, while I continued to interview staff at the center. In the end, I was trying to get Mustafa to learn video techniques simply by working along with me, choosing bright locations and angles and keeping up a good pace of recording crucial moments. I think Mustafa would make for a good co-producer and budding cameraman as he gets better after his surgery.

Mustafa had to leave early for a doctor’s appointment to have his eye examined. I subsequently posted a “cause” on Facebook to highlight his condition and help raise some funds for his surgery abroad:

People can provide contributions securely online to the Middle East Children's Alliance (MECA) on behalf of "Mustafa Shaban Zaanin" (Gaza):

Though I wonder with all that’s happening in Haiti now and the crucial relief efforts needed, whether anyone would care to hear about Mustafa. I’ve already been in touch with many concerned donors and doctors in Israel and Jordan who’ve offered to assist, once we have more information on his plans for medical referral abroad. I’ve discussed that last night with someone at the WHO, who coordinates such cases with the Ministry of Health in Gaza. I hope we’ll make some progress on Mustafa’s situation in the coming days before I leave Gaza on January 20th. While we can’t possibly address the large humanitarian tragedies in places like Gaza and Haiti, I think if each one of us simply adopts the case of one individual over a sustained period, we can make a small difference perhaps. I believe such experiences and the relationships emerging are likely to transform us far more than the individuals affected in many cases.

As part of my efforts to help establish a youth media program in Gaza, I conducted a day-long workshop at the Al-Qattan Center two days ago and was surprised to see nearly 25 participants show up from various community centers, the Shariq Youth Forum and the Qattan Center itself. We talked about our shared experiences working with children using media and creative expression over the years, watching examples of films produced by children, and how to develop a curricula and evaluation for such a program across Gaza next summer. The most fascinating part of the workshop was a rich discussion and arguments among the various participants on the issue of “inclusion” i.e. addressing not only talented children but all needy kids in refugee camps with such workshops, and also on our role as facilitators to allow children to express violent trauma in their films vs. guiding them towards more creative imagination and aspirations beyond their everyday reality. I chose not to speak during this heated session, instead allowing the participants to unravel their arguments among each other. People constantly looked towards me to interject, and I simply waited till everyone had a chance to express their concerns. I felt this open participatory discussion was so very crucial and I was glad that everyone was able to respect diverse opinions.

This spirit was exactly what we ought to promote in our own workshops with kids. I then went on to describe a story I heard from my meeting with Dr. Eyad Al-Sarraj, a noted psychiatrist in Gaza, at his home the night before. Dr. Sarraj mentioned to me that when he worked in Gaza during the Intifada in the late 80’s he struggled with how to deal with his traumatized patients. He came to realize that the best approach was simply to let them speak as a way to express their pain, which already had a healing effect. He then suggested that the solution to their dilemmas resided within the patient and not the doctor; all he did was to facilitate the emergence and resolution of that individual solution as he worked with them closely over time. I indicated that we must adopt a similar approach with children in Gaza who may have suffered various levels of direct or indirect trauma, anxiety, or depression. To allow them to speak and express their anxieties first perhaps through their initial drawings, photos and stories of the war, and then gently guiding them to uncover hidden dreams, aspirations and imaginative narratives in their films. I also felt that we needed to work with all children, regardless of their aptitude or trauma in a common setting to have them leverage a supportive peer environment rather than being considered special cases for treatment, though some will clearly need greater attention and care based on evaluations from baseline surveys and ongoing monitoring.

After the session many trainers came up to me and insisted that we invest ourselves deeply in initiating such a program together in Gaza. I suggested we also establish a team of psychosocial experts to develop an assessment and evaluation strategy in parallel with implementing the program across the centers this summer. We plan to have a focused meeting with such experts from UNICEF, Gaza Mental Health Program, Save the Children and local community centers tomorrow to discuss this further and develop a working plan. I feel such long-term sustained programs that tie creative interventions with psychosocial support are direly needed in places like Gaza and Haiti.

Later that evening after a long and intense day, I met up with a friend at a seaside restaurant for dinner and we talked over the soothing sounds of the tide over sunset. As the chilly breeze swept into the outdoor patio and gas lamps turned on, I began to realize another reason why people in Gaza remain resilient despite such catastrophes they regularly experience. As the fisherman cast their nets and horses rode across the shore, the receding waves began calming the sounds of traffic and the tensions of impending war in the busy streets of Gaza. I suspect it may be a long while before the sea in Haiti can clam the tragic loss there…

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