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Israeli Children Seek Refuge and Recovery at Havens of Calm
American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee

During this past summer's conflict in Israel, Netana, age 12, felt anxious and powerless each time a siren — warning of an incoming Kassam rocket — sounded. She also experienced difficulty concentrating, insomnia and fear of being left home alone. Netana could not even move from room to room in her own home and panicked at sudden and unexpected noises.

Discussions with Netana through JDC's Havens of Calm program revealed that the young girl had witnessed an incoming Kassam that killed one child and injured another one. With great effort, Netana described the very difficult scenes she had witnessed until the ambulances arrived.

Through Havens of Calm, a program developed in Sderot to help children cope with trauma related to nearly six years of ongoing Kassam attacks in the area, Netana's condition greatly improved. Her therapy focused on guided imagery techniques including self-relaxation, breathing and replacing troublesome thoughts with positive, empowering thoughts such as "When I hear the siren, that tells me that I have time to protect myself."

Havens of Calm enabled Netana to develop various ways to deal with fear in order to control it, including her well-developed sense of humor. Eventually, as Netana played the siren sound on her computer and cellular phone and began joking about it with her friends and family, she began to feel as though she could control the siren and not the other way round.

As it continues to be expanded in Sderot and the surrounding region, the Havens of Calm model is now being replicated across the north in response to the war-related trauma still affecting an estimated 40,000 Israeli children there.

Matan, a sixth grader from Sderot, also exhibited signs of fear and powerlessness, but his were expressed as behavioral problems, a lack of motivation to learn and delinquency. When the JDC-supported Warm Rooms program was established at his school — a professionally staffed framework within schools where students can find refuge at times of intense emotional or post-traumatic stress — Matan was chosen to be responsible for the program's "pets". His attention to the animals helped to soothe him and gave him an increased sense of control.

"Through Matan's interactions with the animals, he was able to actualize two basic needs that impart feelings of calm, security and control: the need to love and the need to be loved," explained one of the program professionals. Working with animals that easily form connections awakened feelings of trust, empathy, and self identity in the young boy. Tending to the animals also enhanced Matan's motivation to attend school. "I felt that I had to come to school since there was someone who depended on me every day," he explains. "Someone had to feed and take care of the animals!"

Inspired by his newfound connection, Matan learned about a variety of subjects related to animals, initiated a research project using books and the Internet, and presented classes on animals to younger students. He began to feel responsible and competent, which in turn helped him to feel more protected, in control of the situation and capable of overcoming fear. After a few months, Matan's emotional state had improved significantly, as had his self-esteem and feelings of responsibility and security.

Havens of Calm and Warm Rooms are two of the many programs being launched by JDC with the Israel Trauma Coalition and other partners to address the increased needs of children in the conflict zones for therapy, counseling or emotional and educational support. "The goal is to help ensure that these children's lives are not irreparably scarred," explained one program director. "Not now, and certainly not in the future."