Palestine: Occupied Minds - Crossing a checkpoint

Occupied Minds is a series of stories about Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) patients affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, people receiving assistance from MSF mental health teams in Hebron and in East Jerusalem. The stories are collected by the MSF teams. Occupied Minds seeks to reflect the reality of daily life under occupation for MSF patients and the people who treat them. 

See also: Part IPart IIPart IIIPart V and Part VI

Part IV: Crossing a checkpoint

ALT Juan Carlos Tomasi/MSFMany cases taken on by the MSF mental health teams are related to minors: arrested in school, in home detention or traumatised by the army's night incursions.

Some months ago, Abbas*, a 14-year-old boy from Hebron, was attacked by Israeli soldiers. He and his cousin were on their way to a village near Jerusalem to visit his father at his work. On the road, they had to cross a tough checkpoint where the Israeli soldiers asked them to get out of the taxi. They followed the soldiers’ instructions, so they were surprised that the soldiers set their dogs on them. Abbas was terrified and started screaming. Some people intervened and helped the boys to hide from the dogs.

Seven months later, Abbas’s father brought him to the MSF clinic. He described his son as sad and alone. He explained to the MSF psychologist that the boy was suffering a lot, and that he could not leave the house because of his fear. He had dropped out from school, could not communicate with anyone, had bad dreams during the night and covered his head with a hat all the time.

After meeting the boy, the psychologist saw how acutely depressed and afraid he was. He would not come alone to the consultation room; someone from the family had to accompany him to the entrance of the consultation building. At the beginning of the therapy, he was not even able to choose the activity or the game he wanted to play. He was suffering a lot. He would not even look at the psychologist; he hardly spoke or answered when he was asked something. He did not do anything outside the sessions; he stayed at home with his hat covering his face. He was sad all the time. The psychologist felt frustrated at the beginning as he was not able to help him, especially because he could not even talk or play. A therapeutic agreement was made with him: the psychologist made him understand why he was in the therapy. It was made clear that the objective of the therapy was to help him feel like a normal person again and an important part of his family. He has two younger brothers and a younger sister.

The psychologist also met the father every three sessions to provide parenting skills to work with the family. They had to make Abbas feel he was still a valuable member of the family and could be asked to take on responsibilities, which would help him feel empowered. It was not easy for the psychologist to work on this with the family, as they all pitied Abbas. But in the end, it helped them realise that he was their older brother and not only the boy who was attacked by the soldiers´ dogs.

Abbas and the psychologist started by playing a game called (xo) where one of the two had to win. While playing Abbas couldn’t see himself winning, it seemed hard to win. He was very sad and exclaimed: “I can´t win!” The therapy continued and the psychologist doubted if the treatment would be successful if the boy was not ready to talk about what had happened. During an activity called the “feelings box”, which is a tool psychologists use to make children talk about their fears through drawings or using objects, Abbas finally talked about what happened and explained how sad he was. He asked why they did this to him.  The psychologist asked the boy if he wanted to tell the soldiers anything and they did a role play with some toy soldiers. He started to say: “Damn you! Why?” He openly expressed his angriness.

After this, Abbas came to the sessions without his hat. The psychologist asked how he felt after he had removed the hat and he responded that all the family were glad. He started playing more and more with his brothers and cousins. The therapy ended and the psychologist felt really happy, but was sad at the same time as Abbas could not return to school because of the long period of absence.

Abbas is now working with his father, and every day he crosses the checkpoint where the incident happened.

See also:

Part I: Children and home detention

Part II: Night incursions in Hebron

Part III: Children and live ammunition

*The name has been changed to protect the privacy of the patient.