MCC photo/Brenda Burkholder

Snežana Andjelic is an MCC representative for Palestine and Israel along with her husband Milenko Andjelic. Pictured with their son Andrija Andjelic.

Snežana Andjelic is a psychotherapist specializing in childhood trauma, and is one of MCC’s representatives for Palestine and Israel. She has worked as a consultant for numerous NGOs, including MCC, on how to counsel and support people who have been traumatized

She spoke with Emily Loewen, a writer for MCC who interviewed Jarrah Masalmeh about his experience being arrested and detained by the Israeli military. [Read the story] Andjelic shares about what she observed during the interview and the impact that trauma can have. 

I was interested to hear what you observed during the interview with Jarrah, you noticed things that I didn’t see.

It’s interesting to observe his body: his muscles are all tight, his jaw is very tight, and even when he talks you can see the muscles are very tight. It means that he’s not relaxed with this topic. And the way he is responding he is often using “we” not “me” or “I” so it means that he’s trying to avoid identifying with what happened.

And he’s not talking directly about his emotions. You could see his emotions on his face, you could see that in one moment it was too much, so he slowly changed the subject or went in a different direction. This is a very painful topic for this young man, obviously he’s keeping lots of pain in himself. And this pain will probably be there for a while. His body is telling much more than he is verbalizing about the experience.

How does the experience of being detained affect someone?

Usually it depends on the age. When people are grown up, so over 30 years old, they have stable personalities with lots of life experiences, they would have the cognitive functioning to process what is happening.

Younger people don’t have this ability. For example, youth like Jarrah’s age, 16, 17, 18 – they would have lots of freezing reactions. They would be shocked, overwhelmed and scared. Over longer periods of time in detention they would have all kinds of reactions, especially they would think about the impact on their whole family. They have a little bit more cognitive capacity, but they’re not mature enough to calm themselves down or to predict the future.

That’s the biggest problem you know, Israelis are keeping them in detention – if they don’t have anybody to process or to talk to, they keep all those things in themselves. So their body will have problems with sickness, with anger, with risk behaviour later. It could have an impact on their life for a long time. 

Jarrah Masalmeh was arrested in his home after midnight and detained in Israeli military prison for nine months. MCC photo/Meghan Mast

What do you mean they can’t picture the future? Why is that important?

When you read research about survival of the Holocaust, how did people survive? Those who had imagination and could imagine the future in 10, 20 years, they had pictures that they created for themselves and those pictures were giving them hope. Even totally unrealistic pictures.

Younger people can do that when they’re free—they have lots of imagination about their future and what will happen. Youth that are detained will mostly rely on the stories that they heard from their neighbourhoods, and those stories can be very scary because they are experiences where people were in jail for 15 years, for 20 years. What they have in their heads it’s very scary, and they are old enough to understand that.

They don’t have enough information from the Israelis about the procedure, like “You’re here and in two weeks you will have an integration, after three weeks you will go to court.” You don’t have any information you can rely on, so they start having a hard time creating imaginary pictures that can give them hope.

Talk about what happens when someone is released, what are the steps they go through?

What they need when they come out is first an opportunity to talk about their experiences. To have somebody that they can trust enough that shouldn’t be family. It shouldn’t be anybody really close to them because they would feel a need to protect their family from their sadness and fear and anger and all the emotions.

Going through the therapy, it’s the most important thing. They have to face their experiences and they have to find hope. If they don’t do that usually they stay captured with lots of emotions that they don’t know what to do with. Anger is one emotion that can cause risk behaviour and more trouble. And of course they are angry somebody stole months or years of their life and it made them feel helpless.

Helplessness is something that is the biggest issue with trauma. The feeling that, “Somebody can do something to me and I can’t do anything about it.” This feeling gets stuck in every person that has a traumatic experience and needs lots of time to start believing: “I can.”

And trauma means living with fear: “This happened once, it can happen again. Who can guarantee that it will not happen again?”  Nobody can promise them that of course, but what we can promise as a therapist working with people like that is: “Even if it happens again you can live with that, you can deal with that, you can survive that, you’re a survivor.” Encouraging them to find any way to walk forward and to identify as somebody who survived, to identify capacity in themselves.

And then they need to find meaning in their life. To say, “Okay, who am I now with this experience?” Of course this changed you, trauma changes people, you will never be the same. But you don’t have to be the same, you can be something even better. That’s what we call “trauma wise,” when you come to the point where you can say, “Because of that experience I developed certain skills and capacities that I can use.”

It’s interesting when Jarrah first was released he had so many more obvious signs of trauma: he wouldn’t leave the house, he would recite his prison number every morning. But now from the outside it seems like he’s moved past a lot of it. 

He learned how to live, to function socially. But emotionally he still needs time to process his anger. That you could see a lot in his jaw, the way he’s looking, the way he’s holding his body straight, you can’t see relaxed movement in his body. So it means that yes he learned how to be socially productive, which is very important for him, but he will need lots of time to let it go emotionally. He needs support to really heal his wound. This is still a painful place for him, but I think it’s normal. Imagine what he went through, how much humiliation, how much fear? He will need a long time to sleep peacefully in his own bed.

If he doesn’t process the experience more, he will just learn to live with his pain. He will learn how to avoid situations, how to avoid conversation about it. How to stay away from certain situations, but that’s not freedom. Freedom would be: “I can live with what happened, when I talk about it I feel calm. This is my life experience, I can function socially but I can also function emotionally.”

Of course part of the fear will always be there because they still live under occupation, and they still have to go through the checkpoints, they have to face the soldiers. Those are all triggers for re-traumatization. When he hears the soldiers I can imagine what goes on through his body. So it means that he needs lots of therapeutic support, which the YMCA [an MCC partner] is giving, until he is emotionally stable.

After talking to you about this, I’ve been thinking about a disease that pomegranates can get where they look healthy on the outside, but when you cut it open it’s black and rotten on the inside.

That’s what can happen to people who experience trauma. We get satisfied with people who are socially functioning, they are polite, do their job. But these people are inside screaming in pain and suffering.

So as a therapist, I don’t want somebody just to be socially functional so that everybody is happy with them and he is unhappy. No, I want more. I want to bring the person to the point that from inside everything is healed, peaceful, calm. That they are happy people. That they experience freedom of pain and don’t just swallow their pain. As long as they are in pain they should scream. What do we do when we are in pain? We cry, we scream, we ask people for help. So they should have freedom to do that until we all put enough healing touches on their wound and until the wound is healed. 

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