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Natural Health Care in a Palestinian Refugee Camp

Hope, Solidarity and Acupuncture

by MARK T. HARRIS

Treating illness involves getting to the root of a health condition. Or, ideally at least, it should. In the real world much medical practice is geared toward ameliorating symptoms, without necessarily curing the underlying condition. Certainly the modern pharmaceutical industry is to a large extent based on treating symptoms.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong per se with treating symptoms. After all, relief from pain or discomfort is just that—relief. But how much better when treatment also addresses the cause of the pain or discomfort, the roots of the illness.

Similarly, the “disease” of violence and injustice in society should also ask us to look for solutions that go beyond palliatives—to address the social roots of violence and oppression. For cynics who think violence is just human nature, the latter has always been a quick way to earn the moniker of hopeless idealist. But isn’t it the idealists who always end up changing the world? The latter idea shouldn’t be too difficult a concept to grasp, in this “year of the protestor” as Time magazine calls 2011. It all begins with not accepting things as they are, and, believing far-reaching change is possible.

Such a perspective informs Mateo Bernal’s new book, Healing in Community: Finding Health and Freedom in a Palestinian Refugee Camp (CreateSpace, 2011). Bernal is a Kentucky native trained as an acupuncturist at Portland’s Oregon College of Oriental Medicine. He’s also a political activist with a history of involvement in international solidarity efforts on behalf of Palestinian communities in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza strip.

Natural Health Care for a Neglected Community

Healing in Community is written as a diary of the months Bernal recently spent at the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon. There he established a community acupuncture clinic to provide health care to the local population. It’s a community not only underserved in terms of health care generally, but also often experiencing medical issues directly related to the hardships of camp life.

Currently, more than 12,000 Palestinians live in the densely populated Shatila camp, which was established in 1949 under United Nations auspices. Shatila is one of a dozen such camps in Lebanon for approximately 400,000 Palestinian refugees. Life is difficult in the impoverished camps. Nearly half of adults in the camps under the age of 40 are unemployed. Despite their long presence in the country, Lebanon also denies most Palestinian refugees citizenship opportunities.

Worse, the population over the years has been caught in the crosshairs of much violence, most recently during the 2006 Israeli military campaign against Hezbollah. In a region notorious for human rights atrocities, the Shatila and Sabra camps suffered one of the worst in 1982. That’s when right-wing Lebanese Christian Phalangists, in collusion with Israeli military forces, carried out a massacre of hundreds of men, women, and children. In the mid-1980s, internecine violence in Lebanon exacted a further toll on the people, as the Shi’ite Amal militia launched an assault on the PLO leadership based in Shatila and other camps.

As Bernal’s diary reveals, many of the Shatila population present with health problems tied to their unique history as a persecuted and stateless people. In one case, a woman about 40 asks Bernal if he can help with her hearing loss in one ear. He asks her whether there was a loud explosion that caused the hearing loss, or some other physical trauma. In Shatila, such simple questions have a way of cascading into dramatic, awful revelations.

Bernal’s patient nervously explains that she was injured in 2006 when the Israeli military bombed Beirut. She was hiding under a concrete bridge when it was hit and destroyed. Trapped in the rubble, barely conscious and in pain from an open abdominal wound, the woman lay there for two days before rescue workers found her. Her ordeal was compounded by news that three other family members had died in the bombing campaign. Now she just wonders if acupuncture can help her with the hearing loss she’s experiencing.

Others bring similarly difficult health stories to the clinic. Often they have sought help elsewhere, to little avail. One of the virtues of Bernal’s account is the way he brings to light the lives and personalities of those he encounters. As a health care provider, he is a sensitive observer of people.

Individuals with a history of acute trauma may be more inclined to experience “needle shock” during acupuncture, we learn, making it necessary to tread slowly as their health issues are addressed. One patient complains of a skin condition, headaches, and dizziness. He has high blood pressure. The dermatitis reportedly started during one of the military sieges of the camp. There was disease and infection everywhere, the man explains. With him is another man, also with a history of war trauma. Both are treated, but after only a few minutes the men become dizzy. For now the needles are too much for them, Bernal concludes. The men promise to return.

A Place to Be Ourselves
In a sense, the clinic functions as a kind of safe space within the camp. While patients seek treatment for specific complaints, for many the clinic becomes a place to let down their guard a little, to just be themselves. There they might cry or laugh, drift off in relaxation or express bottled-up anxiety. If they’re too afraid of needles, then needles are replaced by acupressure, massage, and a few kind words. Some patients wonder if Bernal is a psychologist.

Some of those he meets want to learn more about traditional Oriental medicine. To the small group of clinic volunteers, Bernal exposits the patient-centered philosophy that guides his medicine. “It is our responsibility as healers to be able to expand to meet the needs of our patients,” he explains. “They have already gone to enough people who have told them that what they feel shouldn’t happen, what they know in their bodies to be true ‘should be different,’ and that is a completely disempowering and dissociating process for people. When we allow the person to feel whatever they feel, and create a universe of explanation around it, they feel validation.”

It’s a particularly empowering approach to health care, and especially poignant perhaps in a community long struggling for recognition of their legitimate rights.

For Bernal, his time in Shatila evokes an array of feelings; not least of which is the almost overwhelming sense of the challenge it will be to find justice in this long-neglected community. The Shatila camp is “like a person on life-support,” he notes toward the end of his journey. “With the UN providing support for basic necessities and most people unable to work, the situation remains almost in permanent standstill. They are just maintaining life, just being kept alive, but not really living. I don’t know what to think. I don’t know what to do. It’s such a serious problem.”

Introducing us to his Palestinian friends, Healing in Community reads less like a polished treatise on issues in health and society than what it is—one healthcare practitioner’s personal observations on the experience of living and working in a culture and community with a particularly complex and painful history. What Mateo Bernal has done is to remind us of the humanitarian spirit, of the solidarity and compassion, that remains alive and well in this otherwise troubled world. There’s hope in that.

Mark T. Harris is a former Chicago-area writer who now lives in Portland, Oregon. He is a featured contributor to “The Flexible Writer,” fourth edition, by Susanna Rich (Allyn & Bacon/Longman, 2003). Website: www.Mark-T-Harris.com. Email: Mark@Mark-T-Harris.com.