Interview with Dr. Yasser Abu Jamei: The Gaza Community Mental Health Programme
When he founded the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP) in 1990, Dr. Eyad El Sarraj transformed the way mental health and wellness were treated and discussed in Gaza. A self-described “pathological optimist,” he strove to create a community of unified resistance whose self-healing process was inextricably linked with the struggle for a just peace. GCMHP has been central to this process in Gaza after each of the three large-scale Israeli assaults on Gaza (in 2008, 2012, and 2014), helping the community to work through both collective and individual trauma.
The work comes with many challenges. In addition to dealing with the resource shortage generated by the Israeli blockade, mental health workers must cope with their own trauma while aiding others. The current director of the GCMHP, Dr. Yasser Abu Jamei, knows the problem firsthand: during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge (OPE), the fifty-day war on Gaza in the summer of 2014, an airstrike killed twenty-eight members of his extended family, including nineteen children, as they broke their Ramadan fast. It was the largest loss of life within a single family at that point in the war. Abu Jamei continued his work at GCMHP, providing mental health support to the community both during and after the onslaught.
Over twenty-one hundred Palestinians, five hundred of them children, were killed during OPE and another eleven thousand injured. The structural damage was similarly catastrophic, leaving over one hundred thousand Gazans homeless. Although Israel has loosened restrictions slightly on the amount of reconstruction material allowed into the territory, one year on from the end of OPE, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) released a report warning that Gaza will be unlivable by 2020 if current economic and humanitarian trends continue. [*] (For a more in-depth discussion of OPE, see JPS 44 , a special issue published after the cease-fire was reached on 26 August 2014.)
The summer 2014 assault has had lasting consequences for Gaza’s residents. An examination of their situation reveals that long after the cease-fire, the psychological wounds sustained during consecutive assaults continue to disrupt everyday life. This is especially true among children. The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) estimates that over one-third of Gaza’s children require direct and specialized psychosocial support as a result of OPE and earlier assaults. Continuous feelings of fear and anxiety afflict many Gazans, and the ubiquity of ruined buildings and devastated neighborhoods serves as a constant reminder of violence and loss.
GCMHP offers an array of programs to meet these challenges, including capacity-building programs and trainings, community education, scientific research, and human rights advocacy and mobilization. The organization provides services free of charge at clinics, community centers, and by phone via a twenty-four-hour hotline. Through its outreach to families, schools, medical professionals, and civil servants, the number of self- and family referrals has greatly increased. The organization estimates that since its founding, it has served more than twenty thousand Gazans using its hallmark collaborative approach to care that empowers families and communities to support each other through the healing process and regain a sense of security.
In October 2015, JPS assistant editor Brittany Dawson and Zeina Azzam, executive director of the Palestine Center, sat down with Abu Jamei in Washington to discuss his work. In the interview that follows, Abu Jamei talks about manifestations of trauma, methods of treatment, and how mental health professionals care for themselves and each other in an environment with little break from sustained conflict. Ultimately, his is a message of hope for the power of resilience, recovery, and perseverance in Gaza.