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Life on the Frontlines: Coping under Fire

July 15, 2019

by: Jo Sarah Stanford, BFP Staff Writer

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The Iron Dome seen through the windows of the local synagogue in Kibbutz Alumim

The siren sounds. You have 15 seconds to reach the bomb shelter. How fast can you run? One, two, three…Were you eating dinner with your family? Driving home from work? In the shower? Perhaps you were asleep? Four, five, six…Run! Run to the nearest bomb shelter. Do you know where it is? Of course you know—you have to know. Seven, Eight, Nine…Gather the children, help grandma…Do you have time to get the pets? Ten, eleven…You hear the sound of the Iron Dome launching and you pray it intercepts the rockets before they hit your house. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen…Get to the shelter and slam the door shut. Fifteen.

You never know when the siren will sound. It could be night, it could be day—but at any moment, you must be ready to run.

For the past 19 years, this has been the reality for Israeli communities living on the Gaza border. The children who grow up here know no other life.

Living with Trauma

Post-traumatic stress and anxiety affect the daily lives of people living in southern Israel. Ever since Israel disengaged from the Gaza Strip in 2005, the communities on the border have lived through countless barrages of rockets, numerous terror attacks, the constant threat of terror tunnels and three wars. The violence shows no sign of letting up. In the last year alone, terror groups in Gaza have fired over 1,700 rockets into Israel. There are also weekly riots along the Gaza border and sometimes daily attacks with incendiary kites and balloons.

The trauma associated with a single violent event is difficult enough to deal with, but the endless bombardment that residents in southern Israel face presents a new challenge. Living in constant fear of another attack while trying to come to terms with the last one has had a serious effect on mental health.

Children are afraid to leave the house—they only sleep by their parents’ side or in the bomb shelter. Seven and eight-year-olds wet the bed, while others vomit, have stopped eating or have nightmares. They are terrified to use the bathroom or take a shower, because they never know when the next siren will sound. Adults experience many of the same symptoms. Terror is not restricted to age.

Recovery time is also taking longer. Whereas in previous attacks people would readjust after two or three days, it now takes longer, even two or three weeks. Parents, trying to comfort their terrified children, are tired, frustrated and upset—they themselves are also suffering severely from anxiety.

Building Resilience

Esther Marcus is a social worker who lives in Kibbutz Alumim, just 1.9 miles (3 km) from the Gaza border. She knows firsthand the effects the constant rocket attacks have on her community, her family and her own mental health. Marcus works outside the kibbutz (collective community) at the resilience center in Sdot Negev—one of five resilience centers servicing Israeli communities along the Gaza border.

The clinic houses 12–13 therapists who see 80–100 children and families every week. At the clinic, families are provided with tools and coping mechanisms that enable them to deal with life under the threat of rocket fire. The clinic also provides group sessions and works with schools and kindergartens using different mediums, such as books, films and games. They have a high success rate. Some 90% of people who come through the doors find what they need during their first visit and do not need to return.

The Color Red

Esther Marcus, author of Tzeva Adom

In the south of Israel, the siren sound is not the traditional “wail,” but rather a woman’s voice saying, “Color red, color red.” While working at the resilience center, Marcus noticed a strange behavior among the children: they had stopped using the color red. Children no longer used red pencils in their drawings and no longer wore red clothing. The constant rocket attacks with sirens screaming “Color red, color red,” had made the children afraid of the color itself.

This inspired Marcus to write a book to help the children deal with their fear. Tzeva Adom (Color Red) tells the story of all the colors of the rainbow gathering together for a conference. Each color takes its turn to share about its achievements. When it comes to Color Red’s turn, Red is upset and ashamed. “Nobody likes me,” says Red, explaining that children are afraid of him and even cats and dogs run away. The other colors comfort Red, saying, “No, no, it’s not because of you, it’s because of the rockets…Color Red, you’re their friend. You give them time to run somewhere safe.” Color Red is then proud to accept his role, and he wins the award for best color.

Through the story, children are able to talk about their fears and identify what keeps them going. Marcus explained that the story was “symbolic of…who we are; this is where we live. We didn’t choose to be in this situation with Gaza. But it has happened and it’s our job (just like Color Red) to strengthen the border and to cope with what is going on.”

The book also encourages families to assign roles to each family member during an attack, whether it is to turn on the lights in the shelter, shut the shelter door once everyone is inside or pour a drink of water. These roles are proven to help ease the anxiety brought on by an attack. “When they have to run somewhere safe,” explained Marcus, “they know what they need to do.”

Picture from the book Tzeva Adom

Fight or Flight

Marcus, like many other parents, often wonders if she should stay or leave. She worries about the effects the rockets have on her children. “It’s too early to tell what this means, bringing up a generation of children under these circumstances,” she explains.

However, Marcus, like most in her community, chooses to stay. It is their home, and despite the constant terror, they prevail. “It’s amazing to see the resilience of people. For me it’s also the story of the Jewish people. That’s our history: of being persecuted, coping, understanding what we need to do, being strengthened…It’s just part and parcel of our story.”

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