The NGO dealing with the PTSD of the Gaza border communities

Israelis living closest to Gaza have just 15 seconds to get themselves and their families to a safe room. Doing this repeatedly increases stress levels among almost everyone living there.

Schoolchildren learn ways of calming themselves during rocket attacks (photo credit: REBECCA KOWALSKI)
Schoolchildren learn ways of calming themselves during rocket attacks
(photo credit: REBECCA KOWALSKI)

Yaffa Agadi will never forget the day last May when Palestinian gunmen in Gaza fired dozens of Qassam rockets at southern Israel. The “red alert” siren blared over and over near her home in Ashkelon, sending all of them running into the safe room. Yaffa’s husband Moshe went outside to smoke a quick cigarette in what he thought was a break between rocket attacks. As he was standing outside, a rocket landed very close to him, and shrapnel hit him, killing him instantly.
“I have no life, I can’t sleep, I saw my husband die in front of me,” his widow Yaffa said in a scratchy voice on the edge of tears. “I picked him up and tried to save him, but he died.”
I met Yaffa at a fundraiser for Operation Embrace, an organization that provides services for Israelis and their families who were killed and wounded in terror attacks. These include paying for psychological counseling, tutoring, equine therapy and twice-yearly weekends in hotels for family members.
Yaffa told me that her 13-year-old daughter, the youngest of four, has been depressed since her father died. It was the first funeral her daughter attended. Every time there is the noise of a rocket attack or even a car backfiring, she starts crying and yelling, “a rocket, a rocket.” These are classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, says Michal Feldstein, the social worker for Operation Embrace.
Yaffa says that immediately after the rocket attack government representatives came to visit her and said they would help her any way they could. But those promises were empty.
“I feel like everyone has forgotten me,” she said. “The only one who has supported us is Michal.” She was referring to Feldstein.
Feldstein says that a large proportion of children near Gaza who have lived with rocket attacks for years show symptoms of PTSD. These include sleep problems, always feeling they need to be ready for an attack, nightmares, bed-wetting and angry outbursts.
While physical trauma will heal, she said, emotional trauma needs to be treated or it will fester. She herself lives on Kibbutz Mefalsim just a few kilometers from Gaza, so she knows what her clients are going through.
Operation Embrace was started by Rabbi Joel and Aviva Tessler in 2001 in Potomac, Maryland, where Joel was a rabbi for many years. Aviva recently organized a benefit to raise money for the organization. A surprise guest was US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman.
“The goal of the evening is to bring greater awareness to the real people who have endured so much suffering and trauma and yet cling to life,” she said. “Part of PTSD is this feeling of not wanting to leave your home and not trusting anything anymore. The hope is we can continue to grow the awareness within Israel.”
The annual budget is $350,000 and over the 18 years they have raised $3.5 million. She estimates they’ve helped about 10,000 people.
One, she said, was a young girl who was severely injured in a rocket attack and spent several weeks in a coma. She recovered but had permanent hearing loss. The National Insurance Institute (NII) offered her hearing aids, but she wanted to become a lawyer and needed very expensive hearing aids that would filter out all of the background noise to help her understand her lectures in class. Operation Embrace provided the hearing aids and today the young woman is a lawyer.
Another organization helping the younger crowd in southern Israel is Connections and Links: From Trauma to Resilience. The organization aims to train teachers in a combination of movement therapy, somatic experience and mind-body therapy. Co-founder Judith Spanglet says it is a focused way of treating trauma and building resilience.
“Somatic experience is a combination of therapies that uses neuropsychology to work with different parts of the brain,” Spanglet said. “For example, there is a part of the brain which reacts to a threat and automatically goes into flight or fight response. At the time of a threat, the part of the brain in charge of emotions has less energy.”
Most people, she said, can return to normal after repeated stressful events like rocket attacks. But about one-third will require therapy, which many Israelis are afraid to admit they need.
In addition, she said, many of the therapists making house calls in the middle of a war live in the affected areas, and are themselves worried about their own families as they are trying to treat others.
They have published a children’s book called Treasures of the Winning Couple, featuring Mr. Body and Ms. Awareness who together find a way to increase resilience. They also have a new emergency kit with a series of cards and equipment.
On one side of each card is a picture that relaxes a part of the brain. On the other is a suggested activity using equipment provided such as a rubber ball or a scarf with activities that promote relaxation. The kit is meant to help teachers or even parents dealing with frequent rocket attacks.
Israelis living closest to Gaza have just 15 seconds to get themselves and their families to a safe room. Doing this repeatedly increases stress levels among almost everyone living there.
“Children have learned that when I am outside my comfort zone there are tools I can use to get back in,” she said. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a rocket attack or another kid taking a ball. Children learn how to understand their own nervous system and help themselves.


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