Center in Bethlehem Treats Trauma Victims

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNS) — Every week for the past month, when she has the money, Suha Alladin takes her 10-year-old son Mohammed, from their West Bank Village of Ma’asara to Bethlehem in a shared taxi.

She tells her family and neighbors that the boy is going to the dentist.

What she does not tell them is that they are going to the Wings of Hope for Trauma Organization located in an unassuming office building on a busy side street on the edge of Bethlehem’s Old City. There he gets a chance to come to grips with the trauma of witnessing his father, Akram, being beaten in the family home and arrested by Israeli soldiers in the middle of the night when he was 4.

After the incident, Mohammed, who already suffered from health and cognitive problems, began wetting his bed and clinging to his mother. He became fearful of strangers and exhibited aggressive behavior. Later, he had trouble in school.

Alladin, 30, knows the meetings with a social worker at the center are helping her son, but she does not want the boy to be stigmatized by the fact that he is receiving psychological help.

“We live in a small community,” she said. “I don’t want the children pointing at Mohammed and whispering that he goes to a psychologist.”

Alladin said the meetings have helped calm Mohammed. When people come to the family home, he is able to greet them rather than go into hiding.

The Wings of Hope for Trauma Organization was founded in 2011 by Ursula Mukarker, 34, a Catholic Palestinian mental health practitioner, after she had worked with Wings of Hope Germany. The organization focuses on treating people with post-traumatic stress disorder, counsels adults and children with trauma and trains professionals to identify symptoms of PTDS and how to address the effects of trauma.

It’s people such as Mohammed that Mukarker knew were unable to receive the counseling they needed. That there has been an increase in walk-in clients in recent months is a positive sign that people are more aware of its work, Mukarker said.

As in other countries, there are other sources of trauma for Palestinians that have left emotional scars, including accidents, family deaths and the stress of living under constant occupation has left emotional scars, Mukarker explained. But Palestinian society has not often looked at psychological counseling positively.

One of Mukarker’s goals is to break through the stigma so that people can get the help they need.

The Christian faith on which she was raised and which taught her to help the less fortunate is what led her to open the center, she said, and it is what gives her the strength to continue despite the difficult trauma cases to which she is exposed and the financial struggles she encounters in trying to keep the organization open.

“This is what I learned from my religion. I see there are a lot of people in need and thank God I am not in need so I can help these less fortunate people. It gives me the strength to continue and make more effort,” she said.

She has plans to approach local religious leaders to start playing leading roles in promoting awareness about the issue of trauma in Palestinian society, she said, and would like to sponsor traumatology training for clergy.

“For years we have had the occupation, and the Palestinian people suffer a lot from the consequences of the occupation,” Mukarker said.

“The person who goes into prison is not the same person who comes out. They express anger and frustration. There is poverty, domestic violence. It is important to tell the people that their symptoms are normal symptoms for the abnormal situations they have experienced,” she said.

There are other groups in the West Bank that deal with trauma. In Bethlehem, the YMCA assists former prisoners of both Israeli and Palestinian jails. In Hebron, Doctors Without Borders had run a trauma clinic for a decade. But none focuses specifically on private individuals who are suffering from PTDS.

Elsewhere, the Palestine Trauma Center in Gaza has provided counseling along with specialized medical care since 2007. The center reported 700,000 people need psychological and medical treatment because of the effects of the Israel occupation and blockade, though most do not seek it.

In Bethlehem, Mukarker said about 25 people have walked through the doors of Wings of Hope in its first year and she has trained 30 professionals to provide services to traumatized individuals.

The occupation is not the only source of trauma and as societal taboos break down, victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse are beginning to speak out, Mukarker said. The increase in reported cases prompted police to inaugurate a division which deals specifically with domestic violence, she said.

“At the beginning, people were very surprised, there are not just one or two cases, but hundreds. They thought Palestinian society was very clean. Especially Christian families thought Christians do not do such things,” she said.

Many women do not want to admit they have been victims of sexual abuse out of fear of hurting their chances of finding a husband and damaging their reputation and that of their family and thus see silence and acceptance as their only solution, Mukarker said.

“I have no words to express how it makes me feel, I can’t even say sadly because it is more than sadly,” said Mukarker.

Funds for her center are short and Mukarker is scrambling to pay the salaries of her seven staff members and to find a way to fund future training workshops. Still, she said, there is satisfaction in having reached this point.

“When I look back over this past year and what we have achieved, it is a lot,” she said.

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