Touch & Reconciliation

The Hamsa Project — Hands-on Reconciliation in the Middle East

By Sam Cowan

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, December/January 2006.

The media shows us so much human pain that I often have the urge to jump into the TV screen, reassuring palms at the ready, to offer comforting touch at the scene of disaster. Possibly this is a widespread instinct among touch therapists. I believe the antidote to helpless feelings of “What can I do?” is to go out there and do something to make a positive difference.

While sitting in massage school in 2002, learning about trauma, the tutor mentioned that a bodywork colleague of his had gone to Bosnia and was using touch therapy to help alleviate the posttraumatic stress and tension that accumulate from living in a conflict zone.

It was one of those defining moments when I felt I’d been tapped on the head with a magic wand. The adrenaline began pumping, and flushed excitement took over. “Got to do that in Israel,” read the mental note I scrawled to myself and filed away for future use.

I had lived in Israel from 1999–2002 — an almost schizophrenic time. My first 18 months in this country were characterized by the gung-ho “there-will-be-peace” mood of the Oslo Accords — a time when it was easy to skip back and forth between Israeli and Palestinian areas. And then came the second Infitada — a time of shrinking and fear and heart sinking as yet another radio bulletin announced more rounds of casualties.

My desire to do something “hands on” in Israel remained as strong as ever. From time to time, I’d search the Internet for ways that overseas massage therapists could volunteer with those who had been hurt. Google didn’t throw any back at me. The realization dawned that if I wanted to do this work, I’d need to found my own organization.

And so, the Hamsa Project was born. It is an apolitical voluntary organization for touch therapists who want to work with those who are suffering physically and/or emotionally from the conflict. By way of explanation, a Hamsa is a hand-shaped charm recognized by both the Jewish and Arabic world, so it is an apt symbol for touch and reconciliation.

Unlike Middle Eastern politics, which get extremely complicated, the Hamsa Project has a simple code of right and wrong. The wrong is that people — regardless of race or religion — are left to cope with broken bodies and spirits. The right is that we create the best healing space possible for them.

I was joined by four other therapists for the Hamsa Project’s debut mission which took place this past summer in Jerusalem. There were two New Yorkers, Ruth Rogers and Audrey Matalon, who had both done massage work with Sept. 11 survivors; Anne Galvin from the United Kingdom, who had experience of working with the injured and disabled; and Melina Merryn, a practitioner from New Zealand who was embarking on a round-the-world trip.

Between us, we practiced reflexology, nurturing and therapeutic massage, aromatherapy, craniosacral therapy, shiatsu, the Bowen Technique, manual lymphatic drainage, reiki, and Trauma Touch therapy.

Each team member had their own motivation for flying, at their own expense, across continents to volunteer in this volatile part of the world. Anne wanted to counteract the feelings of helplessness that came from seeing atrocities in the media, day after day. “It was a chance, in this war-torn world, to reach out with touch to help the people we hear about in horrific news reports,” she says.

She had some minor fears before setting out, such as would she forget her passport? Would the team get along? She brushed aside larger fears about the safety of the region with the belief that what is meant to be, will be.

Audrey describes herself as someone who is deeply called to help and heal. In her application form, she wrote, “I firmly believe that if the world got together on a particular day and did massage there would be no war for that day. There’s nothing more healing than love, attention, and touch.”

For Melina, the project offered a chance to volunteer in a part of the world she had always wanted to visit, and Ruth, who describes herself as “a volunteer at heart,” had a strong personal connection to Israel, having lived there in the 1970s. She said that she had spent more than a year researching ways to offer bodywork to those traumatized in Israel.

In a Fragile State

The project took place at Hineni (translates as “Here I am”) — a community center in central Jerusalem — just yards away from the cafe- and gift-shop-lined Ben Yehuda Street, a frequent target of suicide bombers. The center works with 150 survivors of terrorist attacks, primarily in their 20s and 30s, by offering support groups and a strong social network to help them rebuild their lives. In the last four years, more than 1,000 people in Israel have lost their lives to terrorist attacks, and 7,300 have been injured. Countless others live with posttraumatic stress and the intense anxiety that comes in knowing nowhere is safe.

The Hineni center director, Benjamin Phillip, said that many of the survivors were in chronic pain from their injuries, but were unable to afford private bodywork treatments.

During our week of volunteering, we worked with 24 women (generally seeing each client twice). The religious culture of Jerusalem meant it would have been inappropriate for my all-female team to treat men. (Male volunteers, please step forward for next time.)

Many of the clients we saw mentioned losing children, siblings, or friends in attacks. Their consultation forms catalogued shrapnel embedded in arms, legs, and backs; a nail still lodged in the liver; nerve-damaged limbs with limited sensation; multiple reconstructive surgeries; an inability to sleep post trauma; flashbacks; shock; severe burns; metal pins in place of shattered bones; skin grafts; and exploded veins.

Audrey recalled feeling worried that working with people in such a fragile state would be emotionally overwhelming. “One woman’s legs were like a patched up pair of pants,” she said. “I couldn’t help but feel some of the pain of her challenges.”

She had volunteered with the Red Cross for three months following Sept. 11 and described the people she worked on then as raw, nervous, and drained. In contrast, the survivors we worked with at Hineni were generally several months or years into their healing processes (Benjamin had chosen clients who were at a more advanced stage of healing, as this was a pilot project). “The time factor changes the context,” Audrey says. She recalls two sisters she worked on in Jerusalem who had lost their younger sister in a bombing. “Even they were ready for life.”

Ruth, who became drawn to trauma work when it kept on “showing up in her practice” following Sept. 11, commented that “pain is pain,” and that made the symptoms of this population and her Sept. 11 clientele similar. She noticed hypervigilance among the women we treated, many of whom had not relaxed since the attack.

I’d told my team before the week began to remember that less is more, and this advice held true. One client was in so much pain that even her hair “hurt.”

I asked the volunteers what approaches they found to be most effective when working with terrorist attack survivors:

Audrey: “I felt I had to lighten my touch and be very sensitive
to something I might feel (like shrapnel), which I wouldn’t find in the population I normally work with. I didn’t enter so quickly. I observed the person on the table — laying my hands on her back or feet to let her connect with me and for me to observe her breathing and energy.”

Anne: “I find reiki always works well with people who are traumatized.”

Ruth: “Quietly witnessing. No judgments.”

As the week progressed, we agreed in our debriefing sessions that the success of our work came from a place that transcended technique. It was a place of presence and compassion, the place of coming from the heart so that soul could meet soul and let our clients be our guides.

I remember one client, a strictly Orthodox Jewish woman, who entered the room timidly wearing a black head scarf and a white, long-sleeved shirt that buttoned up to the neck. She had never had a massage before, so I gently explained that she needed to remove as much clothing as she was comfortable with and then lie under the blanket.

When I came back into the room, she had become a different person. Springy, dark curls framed her face, and her shoulders, untouched by the sun, were baby soft. My intuition told me to make my hands as reassuring as those of angels, for this was a woman who was here because she had lost two of her children in a bus bombing. “The trauma is with me the whole time,” she told me with a drawn out sigh during the consultation. She explained how her mind continually created pictures of what her children’s faces and bodies may have looked like when the explosion happened, as she was not present when it happened. She, like any other anxious Israeli mother, was waiting at home for the phone call of reassurance that never came.

By the end of the session, an expression of bliss had crept across her face, and with light dancing in her eyes she asked if it would be good for her to massage her surviving children. (Absolutely.)

Reconnecting Inner Beings

As therapists, the signs that we were making a difference were obvious. We felt tissue release under our hands and witnessed how our clients’ demeanors transformed during the treatment. Ruth said, “I saw people find their path to recovery and reconnect to their bodies and their inner beings. They found that there was something left underneath their pain.”

One young woman commented that the session had done her better than an hour with her psychiatrist (many of the survivors have depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress). Another, with severe neck injuries, said that if she were able to have this treatment on a weekly basis, she would be able to come off her painkillers.

Clients were given an evaluation form to grade — from 0 (low) to 4 (high) — how successful the treatment had been in a variety of spheres: pain reduction, increased mobility, improvement in mood, and stress relief. The treatments generally scored straight fours. Clients used the same grading scale to say how interested they would be in receiving these treatments on a weekly basis. Straight fours.

The jovial office manager, Chana Rivka, came to me after many a client had exited to say, “Sam, they’re floating!”

Based on our results, the community center is serious about providing low-cost bodywork for its clients on a continuing basis. During our week in Jerusalem, we held a meeting for local therapists who would be interested in volunteering, as my aim is to make each project we work with as sustainable as possible. As director of the center, Phillip’s long-term vision also includes fundraising for a small gym where the survivors can do physical therapy and strength-building exercises without feeling self-conscious about exposing their wounds.

Increased Sensitivity

I asked some of my team how they have integrated the experience into their lives and bodywork practices:

Audrey: “Since the Hamsa Project, I’ve been approaching all my clients as though they’re survivors. I realize that all people have had things that traumatized them at some point.”

Ruth: “I learned to accept people where they are and be there for them. I worked with people of all political and religious persuasions — many with whose viewpoints I definitely did not agree — but that is superficial. I treated the human being underneath the thoughts and beliefs.”

Anne: “I’ve been tuning into people’s bodies more and have an enhanced calmness in dealing with clients. I have a quiet, smiling feeling at the knowledge that there are people all over the world quietly giving little bits of help to others — it helps me keep the belief that there is hope. The wonderful feeling from the experience has spilled over into all I am and all I do.”

From my own experience, every massage I have done since the Hamsa Project has been a powerful one and well-received by my clientele. I believe that working with this population has greatly increased my sensitivity to all clients.

It is deeply satisfying to know that something that began as an idea in a Santa Fe classroom became a reality that positively affected many lives on many levels. I have an inner glow that is here to stay.

I urge others who are compelled to use their hands and hearts to make the world a better place to go out there and do it. A simple “how to” guide on page 92 offers guidance to those who want to set up massage projects for the social good.