Shock and Solidarity in Sderot
A day in the life of a Sderot social worker.
Orit* is a young woman in her twenties, mother of a toddler, a social worker in Sderot, and most importantly, a Sderot resident. Despite the traumas she has witnessed firsthand, she radiates a sense of solid faith, self-confidence, level-headedness and awareness.
Were you born in Sderot?
No, I moved to Sderot four years ago, right after getting married.
And you weren't afraid?
Not at all. In the beginning, the whole business didn't affect me. At the time, there weren't many rocket attacks. They weren't fatal, and the rockets almost always landed in open areas or far away. At every siren, I would stick my head out the window, hoping to see a Kassam fly by. And if not that, at least a Kassam after it landed -- something. This whole thing of being frightened was so foreign to me…
Two things have changed since then. One, on a personal level: a year and a half ago, I gave birth to my first child, and since becoming a mother I worry more. And the second and most important thing is the change in the situation itself: Since the evacuation of Gush Katif, the dominant feeling is disappointment with the government, which promised to act as soon as the first Kassam was fired. In addition, the attacks today seem to be better aimed and more precise, and, in the past year and half, more frequent. It's no joke, and I no longer find it "entertaining." True, I'm not in a state of trauma, but I'm definitely fearful.
What is the difference between trauma and fear?
Every moment that he's outside, he thinks: "Where will I take cover?" "What will I do if there's a 'Red Alert' now?"
A person suffering from trauma or anxiety gets to the point where he leads his life based on fear of the attacks. It's hard for him to function because his thoughts don't allow him to concentrate fully on anything else. Every moment that he's outside, he thinks: "Where will I take cover?" "What will I do if there's a 'Red Alert' now?" It disrupts your life.
I basically keep on with my regular routine. Do what I have to do, and try to stay calm. But I can't say that I don't take it into account. For example, if I want to leave the house to pick something up at the store, I prefer to go on foot, with my son in the stroller, because it's a lot easier that way to take cover than if I had to quickly pull him out of his carseat.
You can't ignore the situation -- it's here with us whether we like it or not. When we're in the car, we have to leave a window open to hear the warning siren -- even if it's freezing outside, and even if there are young children in the car. With the window closed, you have to pay attention to the behavior of the people around you. If we see people start running all of a sudden, it means there's been an alert (even if we didn't hear it). This means that we've got to quickly take cover.
What is your role, as a social worker, when a rocket lands?
Whenever there are casualties of any kind -- shock or physical injury -- we're rushed to the site. Even when there aren't injuries, our team goes from house to house checking for unusual behaviors that require our attention or medical treatment.
Going out into the field like this involves many things: identifying cases of shock, calming the victims and engaging them in therapeutic conversation, connecting them with services in the community as needed (mental health clinic, trauma center, property tax office, etc.), contacting them several days later. So our intervention at crucial moments is important and meaningful, and it calms the residents.
What is meant by "victims of shock"?
A lot of times, when people hear in the media that the injuries "only" involved shock, they breathe a sigh of relief: Thank God, nothing happened. I also thought that way once. In reality, the situation is totally different. Sometimes, a person who's been lightly injured returns home to his regular life, whereas the life of a shock victim is completely destroyed. Recently, I've had the opportunity to meet with people who until now had led full, orderly lives, but a Kassam suddenly cut all that short and turned them into sick people.
The life of a shock victim is completely destroyed.
In one case, we took care of a young boy* who had gone into shock when a rocket landed very close to him. It was awful -- for 12 hours, his body shook uncontrollably. He lost control of his legs, his teeth chattered, and he stuttered so badly that it was almost impossible to understand what he was saying. What he conveyed to us in his acute state was a feeling of trauma, not only from what had happened, but from fear of the trauma itself -- the loss of control, the confused thoughts, the loss of the ability to express himself. All of this made him think that any moment now, he would lose his sanity.
It's important to mention that all of these phenomena are in fact normal responses to the abnormal situations that we encounter here in Sderot -- provided that they're short term. The problem is when they keep recurring over a longer period of time and with such intensity that they significantly hamper overall functioning -- difficulty falling asleep, nightmares, loss of appetite, crying, sadness, withdrawal, and so on.
Several days later, I saw him again -- an intelligent, sensible, well-brought-up boy, with a normal social life. On the surface, a completely normal kid, though he still suffers from symptoms of trauma whenever there are rocket attacks. Last week, I spoke with him and he told me he had left Sderot.
In a different case, I met a woman with children. When she is traumatized, her body seizes up and her muscles contort involuntarily. Her jaws lock to the point where she's in danger of choking on her tongue. Her head falls to the side, the muscles of her arms and legs lock, and if she is holding something, it takes a great deal of force to pry it out of her hands.
Almost a year ago, she went into shock when a Kassam fell near her while she was walking in the street. Until then, she had been a normal mother, a working woman. Unfortunately, she hasn't managed to come back to herself. Due to the trauma's effects, she has had to leave her job. Every time the siren sounds, she hides in terror in the safest place in her home (many Sderot houses do not have a reinforced room). Her body tenses up again and she has to be taken to hospital for treatment. The psychiatric medications that she's given do not always help; when the trauma strikes, it takes over and leaves its mark on her without mercy. I saw her when the MDA (Israeli Red Cross) was taking her to hospital -- eyes glazed over, body frozen and contorted, sitting in a wheelchair. Her life has simply been destroyed.
How many times a day do you go through this?
There are hard days, when there are 20–30 sirens. Yesterday, for example, 50 Kassams were fired! Sometimes it's quiet for a day or two. You get addicted to the quiet, and then it's shattered. Suddenly there's an attack that catches you off guard and reminds you where you're living.
Once when I was doing field visits, I went into a home that had suffered a direct hit. This house didn't have a "safe room." While I was there, the Red Alert sounded. The people asked me what to do, where to take cover. There really wasn't anywhere, so I said to them: "We can read a chapter of Tehillim (Psalms)." So we sat there in this half-destroyed house and said Tehillim. I felt it gave us confidence.
It seems to me that the evil people who are firing the Kassams know us very well. They know how to toy with us. They plan the rocket launchings for the "best" times of day -- when the children are going to school. It's really sad to see how they run to take cover in the "bunkers" that have been set up around the city, when they're coming home from school, when the parents are coming back from work…
Yes, what about the children? How are they coping?
In the course of my work, I come across hard things. We see signs of trauma in children, like the recurrence of bedwetting; angry outbursts; withdrawal; avoidance of social interaction and play; difficulty controlling bodily functions. It's terrible! Such things cause damage to their self-image. Imagine an older child who suddenly starts wetting himself in the daytime; his friends keep their distance because "he smells bad." This harms his social standing, and he himself has no control over this. And don't think I'm talking about kids in kindergarten. I'm talking about children in elementary school, even sixth grade!
Kids' drawings here are different from those of ordinary children. Instead of a little house with a red roof and flowers, time after time they draw a picture of Kassams and the destruction they cause. It's painful to see.
How can the parents help them?
It's hard. Everyone here is coping. Doing everything to shelter and protect their children, their families. Each with his own ways of coping, his own abilities.
My son, for example, would cry hysterically every time the siren sounded. So we began doing everything possible to convey to him a sense of calm. Every time the warning siren goes off, we smile at him and ask him in a "relaxed" way: "What's that?" or "What's the lady saying?" and take him quickly and "calmly" to the safe room. When I'm outside with him too, I try to find shelter quickly but in a way that doesn't arouse fear in him. And I pray to God that He guides me and my actions with wisdom so that I will raise my son in as healthy a way as possible.
Not long ago, there was a Red Alert and we stayed seated at the table. Our child saw that we weren't doing anything. He looked deep into my eyes, as if to check if there was any spark of fear in them. I smiled at him, and he said to me calmly: "What's that?" Then we heard a boom. The lights went out. We sat for several hours in the dark and cold, cut off from what was going on outside. But he played happily by the light of the candles, as if nothing had happened…
With older children, it's very important to talk, to let them express themselves, not to negate their feelings -- and sometimes to share some of our own feelings as well, but carefully. Children have highly developed antennae, and they pick up on our unspoken messages. It's reasonable to assume that a parent who exudes calm will foster self-confidence and a balanced attitude to the situation in his children.
What if the parents themselves are having difficulty coping?
Certainly this happens. In one of my home visits to a family where the mother is severely traumatized, I saw how the ten-year-old daughter calms and comforts her, much like mothers usually soothe their children. It's amazing to see how children rise above their own feelings and function with maturity when there is no one else to fill the role of parent. I think it's a shame, though, that they lose their childhood this way…
But the difficulty exists for everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status or segment of the population. Many couples have lost their privacy: they sleep with their children in the same bed, or the entire family sleeps together in the safe room.
Why don't you all leave?
There are those who can't leave for financial or other reasons. But there are also many who stay here out of meaning and idealism, people who see our remaining here as strengthening the community and the spirit of the people, as the ultimate response to terror, and as a realistic illustration of what is liable to happen if it is decided, God forbid, to evacuate other areas of Israel.
And besides, Sderot is a wonderful place. People get attached to it. Sherut Leumi girls come here (as part of their volunteer national service), and afterwards it's hard for them to leave. They come back again and again, and sometimes even end up marrying someone local and building their home here. Hard to believe, but it's true.
The people here are not "those poor things from Sderot." They are not pathetic -- they are heroic.
The population here is very diverse. It's made up of secular Jews, traditional Jews, religious Jews, long-term immigrants, seniors, young people. All of us together are going through a difficult experience. When there's a Red Alert, you run into the nearest building, and everyone opens their door to you. After the attacks, people come out, show concern, inquire, start to talk about coping and faith -- even if they don't know each other. There is mutual concern that you don't find every place. During a siren, for example, people call out to me: "You're with a child. Run quickly! Come into our safe room!"
Is there any message that you'd like to pass along to our readers?
I would like them to understand that the people here are not "those poor things from Sderot." They are not pathetic -- they are heroic. These are people who are coping magnificently with unreasonable hardship. Even the neediest families, despite their difficulties in all other aspects of their lives, are doing everything they can to surround their children with love, to overcome and go on.
Rabbi Elisha Vishlitzky calls Sderot "a natural town" as opposed to the stigmatized term "development town." Everything here is without artificial barriers and unnecessary materialism. People are more open, more natural. You see true heroism here, not boasting or showiness. "Development towns," he adds, are places like Tel Aviv. They still have where to develop -- and what to learn from the residents of Sderot.
*Names and identifying information has been changed in all cases referred to in this article.