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In Thailand Seminars, JDC Helps Tsunami Caregivers Help Themselves

June 20, 2005
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Juree Worawit wasn’t hurt in last winter’s Southeast Asian tsunami, but that doesn’t stop her from envisioning worst-case scenarios as she relives the moment in her mind. “We’re still thinking, ‘What if the tsunami had hit on a Monday?’ ” says Worawit, a kindergarten teacher from a navy base in Phang Nga in southern Thailand, where teams are still looking for bodies from the Dec. 26 disaster.

“Although it happened on a Sunday and the kids were safe, we still feel guilty, just by thinking ‘what if,’ ” she says. “The other teachers and I often speak about what we’re going to do if it happens again: Who would grab which kid and to which direction we would run.”

Worawit was among 80 participants in one of several five-day seminars organized by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Thailand earlier this month. Half a year after the tsunami killed at least 165,000 people — including 5,400 from Thailand — the survivors still relive the horrific hours that changed their lives.

But the workshop Worawit attended in a Phuket hotel wasn’t only for survivors: The majority were aid-givers, people who gave psychological assistance to survivors, even without training, and who might need to do it again.

Three Israelis — one a trauma expert, the second an art therapist and the third a medical doctor who focuses on body and mind — came to give the helpers and survivors the tools to support people dealing with trauma.

Worawit’s “reaction is a typical post-traumatic one. It’s called ‘Near Miss’: The mind of a person that was in the second and third circle of vulnerability digests the ‘what if’ as if it actually happened to him,” explains Ofra Ayalon, a trauma psychologist who has worked with terror victims in Israel, after the Balkan wars and in Japan and Turkey after earthquakes. “Our model is multi-cultural, and I have to say that the trauma is very similar anywhere.”

“The fact the participants are Thai and we’re Israeli, they’re Muslim or Buddhist and we’re Jewish, means only that some cultural adaptations are needed, but other than that, we speak exactly the same language,” says one of the instructors, Dr. Gillat Raisch. Raisch is a pediatrician and family doctor who suffered post-traumatic symptoms after being at the scene of a car bombing in a Jerusalem marketplace.

Participants in Worawit’s seminar all came from Thailand. At other seminars, Thais were joined by participants from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Though the seminars were intended as a humanitarian gesture, they had inescapable political overtones: Malaysia and Indonesia, majority Muslim countries, do not have diplomatic ties with Israel.

“Barriers were bridged. You really felt people finding their common humanity,” says Betsy Sheerr, a JDC executive committee member responsible for the organization’s non-sectarian programs, who participated in one of the seminars. “One small step at a time, we can make inroads and change perceptions that can benefit America, Jews and Israel.

“It made me feel very proud as an American Jew — and I stress both parts, American and Jew,” says Sheerr, who is a member of JTA’s Board of Directors. “I was very much more moved by the experience than I expected to be.”

It was especially valuable, she says, to help heal those who will, in turn, try to others overcome the trauma they suffered.

“Only now we understand that we, in Thailand, need to be prepared for the next crisis in case there is one. Here we train the new cadre of helpers and teach them how to assist victims and their families,” says Dr. Amporn Sornprasit of Prince Songkla University, the local partner in organizing the workshop.

The training included mind-body sessions that were unusual for the Thai culture.

“Now I will ask you to lie down on the floor and close your eyes,” whispers Nira Shiran-Mizrahi, the art therapy expert. As an interpreter translates her words from English to Thai, the participants, mainly women, including some with Muslim head scarves, lie down on the carpet.

“Relax. Now imagine a color is coming into your body. It could be any color and can come to you through any part of your body,” Shiran-Mizrahi says.

There is silence in the half-lit room.

“Now the color can come as a blanket that covers you,” Shiran-Mizrahi continues.

“Every color has a meaning,” she explains, running between participants who are making drawings on paper in the color each has imagined. “Later we can work with the feelings that these colors represent.”

After the scribbling, Shiran-Mizrahi asks participants to look for symbols in their drawings. Later, each writes a personal prayer on the other side of the paper and goes to the beach to make peace with the sea, offering seashells they have painted with their symbols.

After hanging their prayers on a cord between two trees, they stand and sing together in Thai. Participants seem very moved by the sea-forgiveness ceremony, and some have tears in their eyes.

“There was a session where I experienced an immense feeling of pain inside me. It’s hard to explain,” Worawit says. “Even after you share your feelings with your friends, at the end of the day you stay alone with your thoughts. That’s why this workshop was very important for me: It allowed me to deal with my own feelings, so later I can help other people.”

Even after the seminars, the JDC plans to continue working with trauma experts in southern Thailand.

At the end of the seminar, Shiran-Mizrahi seemed pleased.

“The feedback was amazing. Many girls came to us, hugged us and cried — things Thai people don’t do, as showing feelings in this way isn’t part of the culture,” she says. “We gave them legitimacy to let it all out.”

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