Helping children heal


September 5, 2011

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    Dr. Omar Reda with children in Mercy Corps' psychosocial program, Comfort for Kids, in Misrata. Photo: Mercy Corps

I recently caught up with Dr. Omar Reda, a Libyan-American psychiatrist who’s helping Mercy Corps set up psychosocial programs for children affected by the conflict there.

Dr. Reda earned his medical training at Libya’s Al Arab Medical University. He completed his residency in psychiatry at the University of Tennessee and received additional training in disaster psychology at Harvard. Today he is assistant professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his wife and three children.

In March, Mercy Corps began delivering humanitarian aid — food, water, sanitation — to people in Libya whose lives have been upended. Now we’re working with our partners Bright Horizons and Nike to adapt our Comfort for Kids and Moving Forward programs. We’ve used them after other disasters to help children recover. Dr. Reda is leading the effort.

You fled Libya more than ten years ago. You were working as an ER doctor in Benghazi and learned you were on Gaddafi’s hit list because you’d been delivering food to needy families. How does it feel to be back?
I left as a refugee, and now I’m coming back to a country that’s going to be free. That’s a very nice feeling.

Could you tell us about the programs you’re helping set up to help children recover emotionally from the trauma they've experienced?
We’re translating our psychosocial materials into Arabic, training teachers and running a radio program to get the information out to parents – we want to reach as many people as possible so they can help their kids. We’re giving teachers psychological education so they’re ready for the children when school opens.

What symptoms are the children exhibiting?
We’re seeing children who are agitated and clingy. They’re having nightmares. They can’t listen or focus. And some of them are acting violent toward their siblings.

Are the adults equipped to handle this kind of thing?
No, they’re not. Libya is a society that’s not used to the whole notion of mental health. Here, someone who gets mental health services must be a crazy person. A social worker is someone who deals with delinquency. You call them in when a child is in trouble, and the “treatment” is to punish the child. Now I’m explaining the role of a social worker and mental health services for kids who aren’t bad, or in trouble, but rather, if they’re acting out then there’s something they need that they are not getting. So we’re teaching the adults how to find out what they need.

What can parents do differently?
Well one big thing is to not let them watch TV, because the news here is very, very graphic. The adults feel this is such a big moment in Libya’s history, and they are so proud of bringing Gaddafi down, of winning their country’s freedom, they feel this is educational for their children and they want their kids to be part of the revolution. So they don’t filter it.

But it’s not just TV. Many of these kids have seen terrible violence first-hand. They’ve seen their loved ones raped, tortured and killed.

The situation here is much worse than what we hear on the news in the US. There are 40,000 people dead and 50,000 people missing, and we believe all those missing people are dead, too. When the dust settles and the country is fully free, the world will see. We’re finding mass graves every day. Gaddafi was bombing hospitals and blaming NATO.

Where do you even start, to help these kids?
Talking about your feelings is a brand new idea here. So we’re trying to reduce the stigma around that. We’re holding lectures for medical staff and social workers and teachers to introduce these concepts – that taking care of your mental health is normal and necessary.

Are the adults receptive?
Individuals are traumatized, and the whole country is traumatized. And yes, more and more people are willing to consider seeing a professional for psychological help. But some are not ready yet, like the young men soldiers who are very macho. They don’t realize how they’ve been affected by taking human life. So we’re going to be working to help them come back to society – and to help society accept them. If they are not welcomed back, they may become estranged and violent. Many of them are just teenagers.

How do the Mercy Corps programs help these kids?
We had a tent in Freedom Square where we had art projects for children up to age 12, as part of our Comfort for Kids program. It was amazing – the first couple of days the kids were drawing pictures of blood and dead bodies and tanks, and then we played games with them, and talked, and their drawings started to change. We saw flowers and color start to come out.

What about the older kids?
We saw teenagers trying to start trouble in the square because they had nothing to do. So we took some volleyballs and basketballs there and we started a tournament. That gave them a way to release their energy, and their attitude started to change. Now they’re coming together a few times a week for the Moving Forward program, and they sit in a circle with mentors and they talk about their feelings. We use sports and games to teach teamwork, self-esteem and constructive communication.

You received special training in disaster psychology. Did it prepare you for what you’re seeing now?
The training has really helped. One of the most important things I learned was how to take care of my own mental health. If I didn’t, I am certain I’d be having symptoms of PTSD now, because it’s so stressful.

Can you tell us how so?
Well for one thing, the other adults say things like, “Why are you sitting here playing with children, when all males should be on the front lines fighting?” And I’ve had to explain that we have our own front lines here, taking care of children’s needs. If I go to the front lines and die, I’ve only died for one cause: free Libya. But if I want to be part of the long-term recovery of my country, I have to open my own front. I have to take care of myself, so I can take care of the children who are the future of Libya.

How do you take care of yourself?
For one thing, every day I talk to my wife and my three daughters – they’re 7, 5 and 2. I’m not an internalizer – I talk it out.

Is it especially hard seeing these kids suffer, being a father yourself?
Yes, of course. And I miss my family, and they miss me, so that’s hard. I’m glad they are safe and comfortable in the U.S. But there are children here who have lost their parents, who have nowhere to go. I felt that I had to come back, to help them, to be part of this incredible movement toward democracy, to get some closure after being gone for a decade.

Are you hopeful for the future of Libya?
Yes, I’m very hopeful. The people on the National Council are very decent. And we’re getting lots of support from western countries. NATO is saying they will make sure Libya is going in the right direction before they leave. We want to make sure Gaddafi comes to justice. We have not had democracy, so it will take some time. But it will come.

What do you think the children of Libya need most? And how can Mercy Corps supporters help them?
The children as well as the adults need psychological support. We’ve been asked to open tents — like we have for the children — for women, and for men, too. We need to expand this program. Right now we are just beginning. And it’s having a positive effect. What I want to say to the people who support Mercy Corps is, “Please don’t stop believing in us. Don’t stop believing in Libya.”

You’re coming back to the U.S. soon. Will you return to Libya after that?
I hope to move here gradually, or maybe spend a few months of every year here. It’s the least I can do to serve my people. There’s nothing heroic in what I’m doing. I think the Libyan people are the ones who have sacrificed for my freedom. There’s so much work to be done – we’re just starting. I want to see these programs expand, because they’re really helping.