Gaza: "If you really want to empower people..."

By Hedinn Halldorsson, Communications Advisor, IFRC Reference Centre for Psychosocial Support

In a Red Cross Red Crescent Community Centre in Gaza city, 20 women sit in a circle and share their joys and sorrows. Umm Mahmood is here for the first time. She talks of not being shown respect by her family. Her husband is unemployed, her son is handicapped, and the economic plight, caused by the Israeli closure, is adding an increased burden. By telling her story, Umm Mahmood realizes that the other women face the same challenges, that she is not alone.

The question I am here to find an answer to is how they cope. How does one find strength to keep going when life seems to have come to a halt, when rebuilding infrastructure is not an option, and the future is equally as bleak as the past? How do the women cope with an on-going emergency, having lost friends, relatives? And how can the Red Cross Red Crescent assist and minimize their suffering?

Community based psychosocial support

Assistance can and is being provided through psychosocial support programmes, run by several Red Cross Red Crescent National Societies, both in the West Bank and the Gaza strip. Community based psychosocial support has advantages that one-on-one support can never achieve. Groups and communities posess power that individuals do not have.

"We don't know it all", says Despina Constandinides, a psychologist working for the Palestine Red Crescent Society in the West Bank. "They went through the disaster, they felt these feelings". And these feelings are still vivid with those who experienced the conflict in Gaza first hand, in the beginning of January 2009.

"Psychosocial support workers are not among people all the time. So if you really want to empower people, you do it in a way so they can support each other when you are not there. This is what working with communities gives you", Despina explains.

At some point, Abrar, the psychosocial facilitator leading the women's session, asks them to imagine and draw a safe place. How would their world look like, how would it sound, smell and feel, if they could get out of Gaza? One draws a house made of plastic. "Because I think there will be another war and I don=B4t want my home to be demolished again".

The woman, dressed in black, with a white veil, tells of how she witnessed houses collapse, a little more than a year ago, knowing that there were women and children inside. "I cannot forget", she says. One of the aims of psychosocial support is to help the affected to overcome such experiences and to learn to live with them.

"My husband is not there", says another one, explaining her drawing. The issue of domestic violence is often brought up during the sessions. With disrupted social networks and soaring unemployment rates, the men of Gaza, brought up to be breadwinners, sometimes take out their wrath on their family members, spouses, children.

Domestic violence is thus one of many consequences of the chronic emergency the inhabitants of the Gaza strip find themselves in. One of the women says she'll take the drawing home to her husband.

Different drawings of similar stories

Although most of the drawings tell similar stories, they are all different. They convey hurtful experiences, as well as simple wishes of living in safety. Wishes of basic rights, such as living in freedom, free from harm=B4s way. One of the women draws a beautiful garden, which gate is wide open. There is also a doorkeeper who lets people pass freely in and out.

The session is to give the women strenght and provide them with tools to tackle situations that can happen in family life. Another participant talks about how she has started expressing herself, managing thoughts and frustrations, after starting coming to the Red Cross Red Crescent sessions.

"I provide them with a key, and then they are to learn to help themselves and those around them", the psychosocial facilitator Abrar explains.

During the relaxation, close to the end of the session, one of the mothers leans on the shoulder of a new friend, as she is about to nap, before leaving the room to face another day in Gaza city. Abrar asks the women to form a circle and hold hands. "I sense strenght, I'm surrounded with friends", says Umm Mahmood when Abrar asks her how she is feeling.

Abrar tells them to use what they have learned, and in cases of anxiety, fear or anger, to remember the safe place they drew, and how the culture of dialogue and non-violence can solve problems. The session has come to an end.

The aim of the IFRC Reference Centre for Psychosocial Support (www.ifrc.org/psychosocial) is to facilitate psychosocial support, to enhance emotional assistance to staff and volunteers, and to increase awareness of psychological reactions in times of crisis or social disruption.

The National Red Cross Red Crescent Societies that run the psychosocial projects in the Gaza strip and the West Bank are Palestinian, French, Danish, Italian and Icelandic.