Old Scars and New Wounds: Christians Comfort Lebanon’s Trauma

To a traumatized child, a teddy bear can make a big difference.

But as the handful of Lebanese evangelicals trained in counseling are emphasizing in the aftermath of the Beirut explosion, so can an ordinary individual.

“I don’t think the sit-with-a-psychologist model works with a communal culture,” said Kate Mayhew, country representative for the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Lebanon.

“A lay person might be fearful of doing harm. But there is a lot they can do.”

There is a lot that needs to be done.

An impact assessment conducted by Strategy& in the worst affected neighborhoods of Beirut found that 3 in 4 respondents were suffering anxiety two weeks after the blast.

Nearly 7 in 10 were experiencing disturbing dreams, and 6 in 10 reported difficulty doing household chores.

And according to UNICEF, 50 percent of its respondents said their children were showing signs of trauma and extreme stress.

In the poverty-stricken Karantina district directly in front of the port, one child clutched a bag of distributed bread to his chest, rocking back and forth. Though by then such food was readily available, he was imitating the adults who fought and scrambled to grab their share in the first chaotic days of emergency response.

“He was the hungry kid, the frightened kid, and the active kid all combined in one,” said Mayhew. “He desperately wanted to show his parents he could also provide for his family.”

An MCC partner organization was already on the scene, having set up a mobile clinic and counseling sessions for the adults. Eventually they noticed the kids milling around, otherwise neglected by everyone.

So they created a camp-like setting in the neighborhood park. Rotating 40 children between eight stations, they played games, danced to music, and did artwork—activities experts say are essential for the emotional and spiritual processing of trauma.

And then each kid got a teddy bear.

“These kids are definitely traumatized, and lost so many of their toys,” said Joy El Kazzi, child protection officer for MCC. “It was great to see them able to smile.”

But as a Lebanese, Kazzi was in the minority. Most of MCC’s first responders were Syrians—refugees from war who experienced trauma themselves.

Long committed to psychological service, in 2012 MCC refocused its trauma training on Syrian refugees. After the explosion, the Syrians were prepared to help this new wound of their hosts.

But many Beirut residents were not ready to receive it—from anybody.

Evangelical churches and ministries were among the thousands of Lebanese volunteers who pitched in to sweep shattered glass, repair windows, and offer food to the broken city.

But as Anthony Ziade of City Bible Church conducted over 50 needs assessments in the immediate vicinity of his downtown congregation, only three people ticked the box for counseling.

“If you see a psychologist, it means you are sick,” he said. “No one will do that; it is the reality here.”

There is no similar stigma about receiving charity—Ziade agreed with 25 households to cover their basic repairs.

It is an honor and shame society, explained Smyrna Khalaf, a licensed marriage and family counselor and a professor at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary.

“Lebanese, especially men, want to look like they can handle things,” she said. “Women are less reluctant to admit their weaknesses, and seek help.”

But there is another factor involved, peculiar to Lebanon, said Celia Khater, chief counselor at Beirut Baptist School (BBS).

Lebanese pride themselves on their resilience.

Since 1955, BBS has emphasized both mind and spirit, so there is a greater appreciation for psychology among the 1,000 students and their parents. But when her team of three counselors reached out to the families to offer support, only a dozen or so responded.

Generation after generation of Lebanese have experienced war. And since October 2019, they have endured a popular uprising, the COVID-19 crisis, and economic collapse.

And now the explosion.

“Stability is the most important thing in the lives of children, but this year we didn’t even have one week of it,” Khater said.

“I expected more calls, but the Lebanese culture says ‘Khalas [enough], we can manage.’”

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Source: Christianity Today