My introduction to Gaza in 2004 came with a purpose — to deliver an international award to Dr. Eyad al-Sarraj. I was only “going along for the ride” with my friend from Baltimore, a psychologist. I had never heard of Dr. al-Sarraj or the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme that he founded. The GCMHP’s website notes:
We strongly believe that there is a correlation between human rights and mental health, because sound mental health cannot be gained under violent circumstances, and human rights will not be respected in a society exposed to ongoing trauma.
Dr. al-Sarraj’s work was obviously very important and his peers around the world wanted to acknowledge him.
Israel refused to let him travel to Australia to accept the award in person. That was my first clue that the Israeli occupation might not be all that the western media portrayed it. What reason could Israel possibly have for rejecting this man’s travel plans? My curiosity was piqued.
Upon our arrival at Ben-Gurion airport in Tel Aviv in 2004, my friend and I were placed in separate rooms by Israeli security officials and questioned about our plans to travel to Gaza. “It’s a dangerous place,” I was told. “You shouldn’t go there.”
NOW my curiosity was really piqued!
A few days later, we sat in Dr. al-Sarraj’s office with several of his board members and colleagues. My friend shared a few words of congratulations as I snapped pictures. Dr. al-Sarraj didn’t strike me as a dangerous extremist, he reminded me of my grandfather, both in appearance and temperament.
We were introduced to some of the GCMHP projects — the one I best remember trained Palestinian women to make handicrafts for sale to help support their families. Dr. al-Sarraj believed that mothers are the key to the future stability of the community and of their families.
Dr. al-Sarraj didn’t speak about politics or Israel with us. His concern was the mental health of people (especially children) living under occupation. It wasn’t until much later that I learned how amazing this man is … was.
He died Tuesday, December 17, at the age of 70 of leukemia. The New York Times remembered his accomplishments the following day in this piece.
Rising to prominence during the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli military occupation, in Gaza in the late 1980s, Dr. al-Sarraj focused in particular on the traumatic effects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on children.
He described those effects in an Op-Ed article for The New York Times in 2009 during a three-week offensive by Israeli forces in Gaza after years of rocket fire from there against southern Israel.
“Many children in Gaza are wetting their beds, unable to sleep, clinging to their mothers,” he wrote. “Worse are the long-term consequences of this severe trauma. Palestinian children in the first intifada 20 years ago threw stones at Israeli tanks trying to wrest freedom from Israeli military occupation. Some of those children grew up to become suicide bombers in the second intifada 10 years later.”
He added, “It does not take much to imagine the serious changes that will befall today’s children.”
I’ve been reading many of the tributes to Dr. al-Sarraj published this week — including here, here and here. He published regularly on the GCMHP website, and after returning home after that first trip to Gaza, I regularly checked in to see what he was writing. The Gaza Community Mental Health Programme’s website was my first portal into Gaza, giving me some insights about the conditions there. His letter to his stepdaughter in January 2009 — A 14-year-old in Gaza has one question: Why? — hit me in the gut when I first read it, and again on re-reading it tonight.
In the Spring of 2012, Dr. al-Sarraj talked about the impact of war on the children of Gaza, looking toward the future for those children. The video was produced by Pam Bailey for the “Child’s View from Gaza” art exhibition. (17 minutes)
I last saw Dr. al-Sarraj in Gaza in October 2012 during Noam Chomsky’s visit. I went up to shake his hand after the talk, and mentioned that I had met him 8 years earlier. He said he remembered. I was shocked and blurted out something like “You couldn’t!” He smiled and nodded his head. Great diplomacy or a photographic memory? I didn’t know.
I miss him, as I know many people do whose lives he touched. My condolences to his family, friends and colleagues. I hope Dr. al-Sarraj has a special place in heaven.
Dr. Eyad al-Sarraj (l) and Professor Noam Chomsky (r) in Gaza October 19, 2012