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All it Takes is a Hug
JDC’s Hibbuki Program in Usifiyah

In the El-Salam kindergarten in the Druze village of Usifiya, Carmel, some 20 or so 4-5 year olds are having circle time with their teacher. They have dolls lying on the rug in front of them. Some dolls are in pristine condition, while others are grubby and careworn. Others still are lovingly dressed in little shirts and dresses most likely borrowed from their owners’ baby brothers and sisters. When the music starts to play, the children scoop their dolls up in their arms, and begin to dance. At the end of the song, they throw their dolls up high in the air, with giggles all around.

These dolls were provided by the Hibbuki program, a Jewish Federation-supported project of the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). The initiative first started running in the temporary evacuation camps in Israel’s northern region during the Second Lebanon War to help small children cope with the trauma of the war, and is currently being implemented in 98 kindergartens in the Carmel region, to help 3-5 year olds cope with trauma in the aftermath of the Carmel fires. 

The concept behind Hibbuki (Hebrew for ‘huggy’) is simple: Everybody needs a friend to help them cope with trauma. And who can resist a fuzzy puppy dog with big droopy eyes, a sad looking face, and arms and legs long enough to envelope you in a big hug? Each child participating in the project receives a Hibbuki doll, and their teachers are instructed how to guide them to use it to cope with trauma.

Concurrently with the children’s program, parents and teachers are offered workshops on detecting and coping with the children’s trauma. Psychologists also visit the kindergarten to provide select children who are suffering from severe trauma with art therapy, while also training staff to care for children's emotional needs using the materials that they have on hand

As the fires originally broke out in the forests near Usifiya, some of the children had a direct view of the blaze from their homes and kindergartens. Nada Wahibi, coordinator of the kindergartens in Daliyat El-Carmel, another Druze village in the region, recounts how most of the population in Usifiyah and Dalyat El-Carmel watched the flames night and day, either sitting in front of their televisions or hazarding a peek outside,. “The children thought the fires would come to their homes,” she said.

The children returned to school the following Sunday, three days after the fire had started and it was clear that the fire was still highly present for them: it was manifest in their speech, the play corner, and in their artwork.  Many of the children have been able to move on, but others struggled to deal with the events. “Kids suddenly did not want to be alone. Some did not want to go to kindergarten, while others began bedwetting or sleeping with their parents. Kids who were in speech therapy suddenly went back to stuttering. Some simply withdrew emotionally, while others regressed in their motor skills. They did not want to cut or paste, they were frozen, scared,” said Aviv, a clinical psychologist working with the children.

Hibbuki has proven to be highly effective in enabling children to cope and deal with their experience. The doll’s sad face piques the children's curiosity and is a starting point to the whole therapy process.

fuzzy friends make introductions
When Sina Abu Fars, a teacher at Usifiyah’s El-Salam kindergarten, brought the doll in for the first time, the children crowded around, full of questions.  “Why is Hibbuki so sad?” one of the children asked. “Let’s see,” answered Sina, “Why would he be sad?” The answers started coming; “Maybe he had a fire too?”; “He doesn’t have a house.” In this way, the children began to express how they felt about the fires. This therapeutic dialectic allows the children to give voice to their feelings indirectly yet audibly.  

“If Hibbuki is feeling happy, he’ll bring all his friends over as well,” promised Sina. The next day, Sina gave a Hibbuki doll to each child. “For me?”; “To take home?” the children asked incredulously. “Hibbuki invited all his friends to come here, because they want to be together like one family, just like we are one family here”, she told them. “Take Hibbuki home and be a friend to him, make him feel at home.”  Sina encouraged the children to tell Hibbuki their secrets, and to talk about their feelings with them.

“When the child is looking after the doll, he is basically looking after his trauma,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Shai Chen-Gal, who oversees the project for JDC. Hibbuki was the mobilizing tool  assisting graduated recovery, allowing  children to return to their own bedrooms, close the door, and get up to go to the bathroom at night, because now they had ‘someone’ with them.

 “Hibbuki not only helped the children, but also the mothers. It helped me understand my child, because my daughter never talks about her feelings,” says Yasmin Maadi, a divorced mother of two children. Her children have not only had to cope with the fire, but also, a deeper, more painful trauma. “When I was still with my husband, there was a lot of violence. This made Alissar withdraw completely. When she got Hibbuki, she started telling him her feelings. When she was angry, she would tell me: “Hibbuki is angry”. When she missed her father, she told me “Hibbuki wants to see his father.”

Hibbuki and Alissar have become fast friends. “She guards him, loves him, and wants him to do everything that she does,” says her mother. “A week ago, I put Hibbuki in the washing machine, and she waited right next to it until the cycle stopped. She took him out and comforted him. She told me that next time, I should give him a shower instead!”  The feelings of safety and companionship that Hibbuki endows are not tempered by the sense of responsibility that is laid upon the child as 'caregiver' to this doll. By placing the child in a position of friend to a helpless being, the child is offered an empowering opportunity to articulate appropriately comforting words, such as they themselves might need to hear.

Sina recalls how when Alissar first arrived at the kindergarten, she would sit next to her all day and cry, afraid that her father would come and take them and that her mother would get hit. “She now plays with other children, and she has a personality and a sense of humor that we didn’t see in her before,” she says. “Hibbuki has been going for a short time, and it has helped her overcome a two-year trauma.”Ikrahm Jabar Wahaba, the overseer for kindergartens in Usifiyah, tells us that many of the children in Usifiyah come from troubled homes. They have witnessed and even experienced domestic violence, emotional and sexual abuse. “For many of them, there has already been a ‘fire’ inside of them for a long time.  This doll is an early intervention for them, a fortification which they will carry with them throughout their school years. What you have done for us is really special.”

Khalbi Farkh, the director of education in Dalyat El-Carmel and Usifiyah, agrees. “People forget about us, yet this is a population which experiences a lot of difficulties. When you experience a trauma like a fire, you realize how much you lack, and how unconfident you feel. The fact that you came to us and extended a helping hand, without having to ask for it, means so much to us personally. Jewish Federations in North America and the JDC, through their generosity, have also given us love.”

By Devorah Nutovics