Archive July 25, 2019

Surviving Sinai:

Modern day Exodus stories, and what happens when they are “over”

I speak in metaphor a lot. One of my favorite ones is using the Exodus from Egypt as a metaphor for healing from illness. The idea is that illness is a narrow place which does not permit a person to be truly free. Only by way of a long, difficult journey does a person leave the land of illness and its constraints and arrive in a new, hoped for place of wellness and plenty.

Two weeks ago I had to code switch. I met several people who had literally left Egypt and relived the journey of the ancient Israelites, looking for a place that was wide enough to allow them to breathe freely. Lest you think I’m putting my own gloss on someone else’s story, I mean to say that these individuals crossed through the Sinai desert. They made the crossing on foot and under attack from all sides, from a modern day Amalek of torturers, rapists and extortionists.  Their destination was the modern Israel.

One of them, a young Darfuri man named Usumain, took the analogy a step further.  He recalled being in Egypt, having already rejected Libya and Chad as suitable places to remain after fleeing for his life from the conflict in Darfur.  One night he was watching television and saw a program on Al Jazeera that told of the history of the Jews, including the Exodus from Egypt, and up through the genocide of the Holocaust.

“That’s me,” Usumain said to himself.  “I am running from genocide, and I am in Egypt.  But there’s no way I can wait forty years, I must go to Israel now.”

That was eleven years ago, when he was fourteen years old.  I met a 25-year-old Usumain in Tel Aviv this month, strolled with him through the streets and had lunch with him.  During those couple of hours, one thing became clear: there is a mirror image to my metaphor.

I’ve been relying on the Exodus metaphor as a road map to healing since the day my mentor, Rabbi Larry Heimer, introduced me to the idea.  Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s chapter, “Judaism as an Exodus Religion,” is one of the founding documents of my personal philosophy of medicine.  This encounter with Usumain turned that concept on its head – the Exodus from Egypt can also be an experience from which one needs to heal.

Ancient or modern, a person who embarks on that journey faces thirst, starvation (see Numbers 20 for just one of the numerous Biblical examples of both), dangerous enemies (Numbers 22:2 and onward for the story of Balak, King of Moab, and the sorcerer Bil’am who was sent to curse the Israelites, or the stories of Og of Bashan, Sihon of Emor, and the people of Amalek attacking the weakened stragglers in the Israelite caravan) and despair.  Families separate; Usumain’s mother and sisters remained in Chad, while his brother sought asylum in the US.  Among the ancients, some Israelites preferred the known devil of slavery in Egypt to the unknown of a God taking them out into the wilderness.  Some die in the wilderness – Miriam, Aaron, Moses, the entire generation of adults who came out of slavery, and in Usumain’s group of 12 refugees alone, 3 fellow travelers shot dead by the Egyptian army trying to cross into Israel.

Arriving in the “Promised Land” does not bring the journey to a close.  One doesn’t just get to drop anchor beneath a vine and fig tree and live in peace and unafraid, as the prophet said.  One arrives at a destination where they don’t speak the language, where they are unwelcome, and where poverty and starvation are still a potential outcome.  Another Exodus, to another possible promised land, may be just around the corner.  Ironically, I met Usumain in South Tel Aviv, near a neighborhood called Neve Sha’anan, “the tranquil dwelling place.”  I couldn’t help but think instead that for Usumain, the commonly used Hebrew phrase, “ein sha’ananim b’Tzion” – there is no tranquility in Zion – is more applicable.

Tranquility is hard to come by elsewhere in the world as well.  Metaphorical Sinai crossings in other parts of the world also end in sexual assault, death from asphyxia and heatstroke in a truck-turned-oven in the Sonoran desert, or in a cage in the supposed “land of the free.”  Usumain chose Israel as his destination in part because he didn’t want to end up drowning on a raft in the Mediterranean, like so many African refugees before and after him.

Cynics in wealthy countries from Central Europe to the US have suggested that the migrants should have sought asylum in the first country they came to, as if this would somehow solve the problem (perhaps it would – it would save the wealthy nations from having to acknowledge how fortunate we are).  A laughable notion: should Sudanese refugees seek asylum in Chad, one of the two or three poorest nations on Earth?  Should the Congolese refugees that left in 1994 expect a homecoming in Rwanda, a country that had literally months before been torn apart by a genocide?  Refugees fleeing Somalia in the 1990s and 2000s ended up in refugee camps in Yemen – I wonder how their asylum cases would be going right about now? 

Usumain’s story ends well; he is one of a very few to gain official refugee status from among the Sinai survivors.  Thousands of others are still in limbo.  But even when the political drama reaches a conclusion, there is an internal drama of nightmares, anxiety, depression and flashbacks that continues.  It is not unique to the Sinai refugees, be they men from Darfur or women from Eritrea, but it is a further reminder that an exodus is both a journey to healing and a journey from which one must heal.

I left lunch with Usumain and soon found myself having coffee with Aeden, one of the Eritrean women I just mentioned, at the Kuchinate Gallery[i] a short distance from Neve Sha’anan.  Kuchinate is the Tagrinya word for “crocheting,” and that is what happens at the gallery.  Women like Aeden support themselves and their children by producing baskets in a traditional style, which the gallery buys from them no-strings-attached and sells to keep the doors open, the lights on, and food on the table for the kids in the afternoons. 

But Kuchinate, I learned, is about more than livelihood.  It is its own form of healing.  In a culture where unloading your troubles on a stranger with an impassive face is a laughable idea, the gallery brings together women who become fast friends and can confide in each other about the horrors they have experienced.  Both the work, and the comraderie that it creates, are their own form of therapy that may be more relevant than all the CBT in the world.  Among the Nepali-speaking refugees I care for, there has long been an idea that “a friend is a psychologist;”[ii] Kuchinate allowed me to watch this saying in action in another culture from another continent.

There’s also a lot of self-healing going on at Kuchinate.  The gallery’s director, Dr. Diddy Mymin Kahn, joined with an Eritrean nun that everyone calls Sister Aziza to produce a book, A Guide to Recovery for Survivors of Torture,[iii] written in English and Tigrinya with culturally relevant drawings and blank pages for notes, that walks a survivor through the process of healing moment-by-moment, helping them to feel safe, conquer basic fears like agoraphobia, and combat anger, depression and despair.

There are 60 million people in the world today estimated to be in the midst of writing their own Exodus narrative.  It is a public health crisis on the same order of magnitude as HIV/AIDS, malaria or tuberculosis.  Both the social services and the mental health services in almost every one of the “promised lands” these Sinai-crossers are striving toward, not to mention the places many of them languish in the meantime, are underfunded and overwhelmed.  It will be because of individual resilience, and because of the embrace of intimate friends like Kuchinate, that they will someday be able to complete their journeys and recover from their travels.  Day to day, I strive to provide that embrace in my work.  I invite you to join me.


[ii] Liana Chase and Ram P. Sapkota.  ‘‘In our community, a friend is a psychologist’’: An ethnographic study of informal care in two Bhutanese refugee communities.  Transcultural Psychiatry 2017, Vol. 54(3) 400–422.

[iii] Dr. Diddy Mymin Kahn and Sr. Azezet Habtezghi Kidane, tr. Mebrhatu Baraki and Kebedom Mengistu, ill. Karen Brockman.  A Guide to Recovery for Survivors of Torture.  Tel Aviv: UNHCR, 2016.

Losing, Loss and Living

Jesse James will forever live in infamy.

No, not that Jesse James.  He already lives in infamy.  I mean the tight end Jesse James, number 81 for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  You know, the guy who caught the touchdown pass that finally put an end to Tom Brady’s decade-and-a-half dominance of the Steelers and cleared the way for a run to a seventh Lombardi Trophy.

At least for five minutes, he did.

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