Sunday, July 26, 2009

S'derot: The City That Survives

“Israelis say that Haifa is the city that works,” our guide on the coastal tour said last Tuesday, “Tel Aviv is that city that dances. Jerusalem is the city that prays.” We were in Haifa at the time, and everyone on the bus smiled appreciatively.

The following day, Neal and I went to S’derot, with Karyn London from Atzum. Karyn, as I’ve written before, is the Social Worker for the Roberta Project for Survivors of Terror.

How would one describe S’derot?

It’s very different from the other Israeli cities Neal and I have stayed in, toured in, or been driven through. The other cities are teeming with activity: people walking and talking, automobile traffic, kids playing in parks, people shopping, horns blaring.

S’derot (on the day we were there) was quiet, with few people on the sidewalks, and less automobile traffic. That may have been partially because we were in primarily residential areas, and the open-air market was not operating that day. Or it may have been because many of the residents of S’derot have lived for the last 10 years with regular bombardments of kassam missiles by terrorists from the Gaza strip- approximately 2 miles away. As a result of Operation Lead Cast (from December 2008 – January 2009), the missiles have been almost silenced, at least temporarily.

One might think, with the danger set aside, that residents of S’derot would be out and about – enjoying the freedom to roam their city. Unfortunately, although the attacks have ceased, the fear resulting from them remains unabated for many.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychological disorder that many of us are unfamiliar with. It generally results from a traumatic event – physical or psychological – and manifests itself in a variety of ways. Paralyzing fear is triggered by sights, smells, sounds, or memories of the traumatic event. These triggers often occur randomly, with no prior warning. The fear causes the body to react as if it were in extreme danger and to seek to protect itself as best it can. Self-protection becomes the primary goal, frequently resulting in regression from previously-attained competencies. For example, a child (or adult) may begin bedwetting at night. Sleep disturbances are common. Clinging to a safe person in a safe place is critical.

Most of us don’t really understand the complex dynamic between fear, triggers, physiological reactions, and the body’s natural reaction to protect itself. We frequently offer well-meaning advice: “Just push through the fear” or “You can’t let the past event rule your present and future” or “Everyone’s afraid of something: just pull yourself together.” In our society, fear is often seen as a weakness, a lapse of moral fiber, something that can be conquered with just a little willpower.

If only it were that easy.

It’s not.

I can’t begin to envision what it must be like to live through attack after attack; to see my children injured; to experience such profound fear myself and yet know I must find a way to help my child heal. This in addition to the physical injuries resulting from such attacks and the loss of property – and the sense of violation that comes with those losses.

These are the people that Karyn works with. Atzum helps by providing direct services – money for therapeutic swimming lessons or tutoring for a child who’s missed too much school because fear keeps him/her glued to a mother’s side. Atzum also helps provide indirect services – helps survivors navigate the bureaucracy in order to obtain necessary disability payments or home repairs or career training for a life that’s been altered.

Neal and I had the privilege of making three home visits with Karyn on Wednesday.

The first family – mom, 15 year-old daughter, and 9 year old son – still struggle with the aftereffects of a rocket hitting their home. And, oh yes, Mom’s mother who’s had a severe stroke lives with them – lying on a bed in the living room. Mom suffers from mental illness resulting from earlier attacks; also, the son’s vision is impaired and he lost almost a year of schooling because he was unable to leave the house due to fear. The daughter has participated in leadership programs in England and New Jersey – and behind her bright sunny smile, one can see the fear in her eyes when she talks about hearing the missile hit their home. Atzum is paying for the son’s tutoring in hopes that he will be able to re-join his class in September. Karyn’s encouraging both children to participate in after-school chuggim/clubs this coming school year, but a final decision has not yet been made. It’s a testament to how safe the son feels with Karyn that he’s willing to leave the apartment to show us the reinforced, “safe” outdoor playground. He demonstrates the apparatus for us, climbs through the caterpillar and generally acts like a giggly, nine year old boy who’s loving the attention. But the playground is a short car ride away – there’s no place near his apartment for him to play outside safely. So most of his time is spent indoors. It seems safer.

The second family is fairly new on Karyn’s caseload: two children, a mom and a dad. The dad’s PTSD first manifested itself in the early 1980’s as a result of his army duty in the late 1970’s. Mom’s PTSD is of more recent inception. She used to support her family by cleaning houses. Now, neither she nor dad is able to leave their apartment. Recently they needed to make a choice – tutoring for the almost-bar mitzvah aged son? Or shoes for him? … They chose shoes. It’s hard to envision needing to make such a basic choice.

The last family we visit is a more financially stable family. The first attack destroyed their roof; the second one hit the front room of their house. Mom relayed that after the attacks her now-ten year old son began to wet the bed, refuses to leave the house without her, and sleeps with her at night. She quit her job because he was unable to function without her physically near him. He’s agreed just this summer to attend camp each morning, allowing Mom to work four hours a day, but refuses to go on field trips to the swimming pool with his camp group. Mom’s working on establishing support groups for others in their situation and has a proposal pending for an afterschool program/ curriculum to be introduced in S'derot to help the children understand what’s happening to them, and empower them. And by the way, did I mention that when he was eight, he wrote a letter to then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert which was published in Maariv newspaper asking for him to protect his school?

Karyn works with approximately 15 such families in S’derot (in addition to families across the entire State of Israel who are survivors of other terror attacks). Most of the families she works with are people who would otherwise fall through the cracks. Historically, many families in S’derot lived a marginal existence even before the rockets began to fall. There’s no industry in S’derot. The train from Tel Aviv doesn’t go that far.

It would be easy to think of the families Karyn works with as “victims.” She – and we – prefer to think of them as “survivors” whose daily lives demonstrate great courage.

I was in error by saying "There's no industry in S'derot." From my friend and colleague, Arnie Draiman, comes the following: "There is a LOT of industry in S'derot. a big industrial park with some of the biggest names in Israel there - Osem, for example."

Todah rabah, Arnie: thanks for the info.

No comments: