Therapy with Palestinian victims of torture

During her Isabel Schwarz travel fellowship, Finola Owens (pictured) would lie in bed each night listening to the shells and bombs going off nearby. By day, Owens is a practice manager in a specialist looked-after children team for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Outside work, she is involved with Twinning with Palestine, a group that encourages twinning or friendship links with Palestinian communities.

“I’ve always wanted to go to Palestine,” she says. “I’m Northern Irish and have always had an interest in Palestine because of the humanitarian and political situation there, as that is reflected in my background.”

Owens went to Palestine last year with Twinning with Palestine for a 10-day tour of the West Bank. She visited several projects
where she saw how international sanctions on the Hamas government meant that nongovernmental organisations were struggling
to support children, families and other vulnerable people.

While she was there, Owens heard about the Treatment and Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture – and it was this that
drove her to apply for the travel fellowship. The TRC is a Palestinian non-governmental, not-for-profit organisation, established to provide psychosocial services to survivors of politically-motivated torture and violence, their families and their communities.

Founded in 1997 under the umbrella of the Mandela Institute for Political Prisoners, the TRC is the only centre of its kind in
the West Bank. It has expanded its work to include training, outreach, public awareness, research, and crisis intervention and prevention activities, as well as networking with similar centres worldwide.

Its main office is in Ramallah but, in late 2003, TRC established offices in the north (Jenin) and south (Hebron) of the West
Bank in order to facilitate outreach services. Current technical staff include one consultant psychiatrist, 13 psychologists, 11 social workers and three psychiatrists/general practitioners.

Owens worked at the Jenin office for three months from March, an area which has one of the highest rates of political detentions
in the West Bank. During her time there, she was involved in a programme of visits to different areas including the refugee camp
in Jenin and surrounding villages. Owens learned about narrative therapy, which focuses on people’s expressions of their
experiences of life.

“Many therapies are internally based, but narrative therapy looks at events outside,” Owens says. “In Palestine, a key part of this is the occupation and torture that people have no control over. So it’s about helping them externalise rather than internalise
what has happened to them, to try to reduce the damage that it does internally.”

Owens found that much of the TRC staff’s work is on post-traumatic stress disorder and repetitive trauma. With one family that she was working with, the woman’s husband had been imprisoned by the Israelis for 16 years.

“He had been in a resistance movement and the family of anyone like that is targeted to suppress any activity,” she says. “At the
time of working with her, the Israeli government was looking at releasing some prisoners and the woman was hoping her husband would be one. We had to look at the effect on her of pinning all her hopes on this and what would happen if he wasn’t released.”

Owens says that to make matters worse, the woman’s two eldest sons had also been imprisoned. Her daughter, who had just
qualified as a solicitor, was arrested by Israeli forces but was released because of media attention. Her youngest son, aged
12, was taken by Israeli soldiers but also released. “Every family at the top of society – those who are professionals or ministers – has had a member in detention because they are the ones with influence,” says Owens. “It’s about destroying the infrastructure of society.” It is hard to protect or treat these people because of the repetitive trauma. “You are dealing with trauma that you can do nothing to prevent.”

Owens cites another example of a man she worked with who had been arrested and imprisoned for four years as soon as he
returned to Palestine from Pakistan where he had just qualified as an engineer.

“We talked about the impact of his imprisonment – almost all in solitary – and torture,” she explains. “We looked at how what happened to him was external to him, that there was nothing he could have done about it, and he was empowered by that.”

But the experience left him unwilling to leave the house as the threat of imprisonment again was ever present.

“Part of the work was quite traumatic because you are dealing with situations where a family has been targeted and you know that they could be kidnapped repetitively and put in detention and then released. So they suffer from mental health problems due to the experience of trauma and the reality of fear.”

Often the way they deal with it is either by not moving out of the area or by staying at home. This can lead to them becoming isolated in their own families and communities.

The visit made Owens appreciate people’s capacity to survive. She hopes to start using narrative therapy in her day job and
would like to return to Palestine each year to carry on with the work. Meanwhile, she is planning to learn Arabic so that she can
communicate better with those she is trying to help.

Contact the author
 Natalie Valios

This article appeared in the 2 August issue under the headline “Resisting trauma”


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