Occupied minds: Exposing a mental health crisis in the West Bank

Mervat Suboh, a Palestinian psychologist working in Hebron for MSF, calls a patient to schedule an appointment for therapy.
Occupied Palestinian Territories 2017 © Moises Saman/Magnum Photos
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On World Mental Health Day, October 10, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) launched “Occupied Minds,” a multimedia exhibition featuring the work of Magnum photographer Moises Saman documenting the mental health challenges facing Palestinians living in the West Bank. The traveling exhibition opened in Amman, Jordan.

“Palestinians living in the West Bank experience enormous levels of direct and indirect violence in their daily lives, and this is having an impact on the mental health of many of them,” said Juan Carlos Ramos, MSF head of mission in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. “Every day, our teams work to support people suffering as a direct result of events related to the violence, including detention of relatives, violent home and school raids, house demolitions, the killing of family members, searches at checkpoints, and day to day harassment by settlers and soldiers.”

MSF has run mental health support programs in the West Bank city of Hebron since 2001. In 2018, MSF mental health teams have provided over 6,400 people with individual or group counseling, psychotherapy, psychosocial first aid, or psycho-educational support. However, mental health issues remain a stigmatized topic in the region, discouraging many of those who need help from seeking it.

Saman´s documentary work explores the personal impact of traumatic events on Palestinians living in Hebron. Here are some of the stories featured in the exhibition:

Raed, age 43

Raed, a father of six children living in the Beit Ummar neighborhood of Hebron, was shot in the hip by Israeli soldiers during clashes following the funeral of his young cousin. Raed is now unable to provide for his family and shows signs of depression. He also worries for his son, traumatized by a raid on the family’s home.

It was my cousin’s funeral, and I was one of the people who carried the casket down the street. The young people were so angry, they started throwing rocks at a military checkpoint. Then the military started shooting, with bullets flying in all directions. I didn’t feel the first hit, but I definitely felt the second. One of the bullets hit my pelvic area. Eventually, surgeons operated, inserted screws into my body and fixed my bones. After the operation, I started to feel better, but I struggled.

Then, one night and out of nowhere, Israeli soldiers were pounding on my door. When they came into my house, my children were screaming. They destroyed the closets, destroyed the house, destroyed everything.

My son and I suffered the most during the raid. If he could have hidden inside my clothes, he would have done it. Now he refuses to go [out]. He stopped playing outside. I felt like I had lost him, like he wasn’t my son anymore. At first, I felt that he was weak, but when I spoke to the MSF psychiatrist, he said my son was broken inside. My son needed extended treatment.

Noura, age 46

Noura approached MSF for support following the arrest of her son by Israeli forces in the West Bank in January 2017.
Occupied Palestinian Territories 2017 © Moises Saman/Magnum Photos

Noura approached MSF for support following the arrest of one of her sons by Israeli forces in the West Bank. Two of her sons have been detained repeatedly. She sometimes feels hopeless about the future and is preoccupied with worry for her children.

I live in Al Fawwar refugee camp [south of Hebron]. Many awful things happen here on a daily basis. My two youngest sons have been arrested five times. I think Mohammad was just a week into his tenth grade at school when it [first] happened. We suddenly heard someone pounding on the door. I didn’t suspect it would have anything to do with him, he was so young. We were used to soldiers coming into our house … but this was the first time they arrested one of my children. When I saw them taking him away, I didn’t feel that he was being arrested, I felt that he was being killed. I imagined someone would come in the morning and say they had found his corpse on the mountain.

They took one of my children, and then they came back and took another. Sometimes they take them both at the same time, sometimes they take one and leave the other. A mother always cares for everyone. Imagine if your son had left the house and was a little late returning, you’d be worried. Now, imagine living with that fear each day, that one of your children will be taken away from you.

I cannot sleep anymore. I am wrecked with worry. I have developed an obsession that they are coming for me every day. Even if a breeze slightly moves the door, I expect them to be there. I cry all the time. I am not crying for my sons, but for all children. I don’t want anyone to grow up and experience the same things my sons did.

Omar, age 33

Omar is still recovering from physical and psychological injuries after a stun grenade exploded outside his home in the West Bank.
Occupied Palestinian Territories 2017 © Moises Saman/Magnum Photos

Omar is from Beit Awwa village in Hebron governorate. He suffered injuries to his eye and face caused by a stun grenade that detonated outside his home. He still suffers from his injuries but tries to focus on the positive side of life. 

One day I came home after work. There were Israeli soldiers in my neighborhood and they didn’t allow me to enter my house. So I went up to my father’s house. An hour later they retreated, so I went back. An explosive had been placed in front of the door. My wife and our three-month-old daughter were with me. I let them enter the house and then I picked up the bomb. I honestly thought it was already defused or detonated and was about to throw it away. As soon as I picked it up, the bomb exploded.

I completely lost my ability to see. I have no idea how powerful the sound of the explosion was because I immediately lost hearing and my ears bled. I suffered burns on my chest. I could feel blood coming from my eyes. I felt for a moment that it was the end. I believed at that moment that I had completely lost my eyesight and hearing.

The incident caused many psychological complications for me. I didn’t want to speak to anyone about what happened. I stopped going to work. My feelings just piled up inside of me. I think the reason I did this was because I was terrified. I was so scared for my daughter, my wife, and my family. The incident haunted my dreams. It occupied my mind. I couldn’t sleep. It turned my life upside down.

With medical care, my condition started to gradually improve, but things will never be normal. With therapy, I have learned to focus on the positive things in my life. I am married, and I have a daughter. She is two years old now. Her name is Wisan.

Youssef, age 13

Youssef, a young boy living in a refugee camp in the West Bank, talks to an MSF psychologist.
Occupied Palestinian Territories 2017 © Moises Saman/Magnum Photos

Youssef lives in the Al-Arroub refugee camp, in the south of the occupied West Bank. His family home in Hebron was demolished by Israeli forces. Since then, he has struggled in school and with communication. Slowly, with treatment, he is improving.

The first time they [Israeli forces] came, my brother and I were sitting inside our house. My mother told us to get dressed. When we asked her why, she said that we had to go to our uncle’s house because they were coming to blow things up. When we were at my uncle´s, they blew up our house, the force of the blast made us fall to the ground. When we stood up to see what had happened we saw smoke coming out of the house. Eventually the explosions ended.

When we all came back to my uncle’s house, I was afraid. I went to my mother and asked her to hide me.… I dreamed that the army came and shot me.… Sometimes the dreams come back.

After my house was destroyed, I felt anxious and very afraid. I wasn’t able to go outside. My grades in school suffered, and I had problems speaking to other people. I felt angry all the time and fought with my brothers and sister. After seven sessions with the MSF psychologist things got better. I feel better about myself, and now I can talk about what happened. I have learned to play outside again.