Friday, May 13, 2011

Well-Deserved Rest & Relaxation

The ladies go home Sunday evening.

They’ll travel back to Israel, to their homes in the communities on the edge of the Gaza Strip, an area known as Sha’ar Hanegev (Gate of the Negev).

For nearly 10 years they and their families and neighbors have been under constant tension amid the threat of indiscriminate rockets, missiles and mortars hurled from over the border. Reaction time is measured in seconds, not minutes. When an alarm sounds, and it is not a guarantee one will, they have perhaps 15 seconds to find shelter. It’s a traumatic existence trying to live peaceably in your moshav or kibbutz right next to an enemy whose apparent only goal in life is to take yours.

Dealing with trauma is their everyday routine, in their personal and professional lives. They are psychologists, nurses and social workers, first responders when the bombing starts, sometimes rushing into action even as more incoming is on the way. They help young and old residents cope with the reality they are targets of a movement committed to their annihilation.

For two weeks ending Sunday, eight Israeli care givers will have enjoyed some well-deserved rest and relaxation, living with families in Westchester while visiting New York City and Washington, DC. They were brought here by Shalom Yisrael, a Westchester organization that for some 25 years has hosted groups of Israelis, usually victims of terror, military veterans or injured soldiers. Like last year, Shalom Yisrael welcomed trauma care providers to America, most for their first U.S. visit. Gilda and I housed one of the women a year ago. This time, as I did in 2010, I accompanied them on a three day trip to Washington ending late Wednesday night.

It’s hard to fully appreciate what these unassuming women do. We take it for granted when soldiers storm into the breach of battle. They’re armed. Fulfilling their duty as the spearhead of defense is their job, what they are trained to do. But how many civilians would leave their families and the relative safety of a shelter when Qassam rockets start to fall to minister to the elderly and the young, to comfort the fearful, even as you must suppress your own anxieties?

Rockets land daily. The calm after the Israeli military response of two years ago has long since dissipated. The effects of constant bombardment exhibit themselves in subtle ways. Children associate the color red with the Red Alert warnings, so many choose not to use red paint when drawing. With so little time to rush to a shelter or safe room, teenagers take shorter showers, just in case. They leave the bathroom door open. Some are afraid to go to the toilet, lest the shells come at an inopportune moment. Bedwetting beyond normal years is prevalent. Slipping back into a parent’s bed is common. Children, even teenagers, are afraid to be alone. Eating disorders affect many. After the recent attack on a school bus, which critically injured one high school student, the only child still on board, children are afraid to ride the buses. Even the bus drivers, mostly all military veterans, are anxious because they’re responsible for the children.

The spirit of the trauma care providers is indomitable, sometimes beyond comprehension, sometimes bordering on the comical. They didn’t care if it rained during their visit. What’s a little water, one said, when she has to consider more metallic, explosive matter raining from the sky as she takes a walk around her village each morning. Another reacts to a Red Alert by quickly opening the doors of her home not only to passersby but also to the dogs and cats that have become traumatized by the bombardments. Observing a Washington intersection signal that counted down the 30 seconds to safely cross a street, a third woman noted she’d become quite proficient in knowing exactly how much she can accomplish in the 15 seconds before a missile lands. She could hang several pieces of laundry. Matter-of-factly another shows me a picture of her home pockmarked by shrapnel after a shell exploded nearby. Moments before her husband stood where the rocket landed. He walked away, but a cherished friend remained and died. Yet they express empathy for the Palestinians when they hear the pounding the Israeli military inflicts in retaliation on Gaza. No one should live with the fear of incessant violence, they say. They are not hard-liners. They are left of center politically. They just want peace.

They are extraordinary in how ordinary they are. They shop for their children and husbands, hoping those back home will not complain too much about their gifts. They shop for themselves. Just a few more days left to check off all the items on their shopping lists. Then it’s back to the ramparts, otherwise known as home.