Cultural Competence

By Laurie Kahn
August, 2008

“Culture, context and identity can render an experience traumatic.”
– Laura Brown, Cultural Competence in Trauma Treatment: Beyond the Flashback, 2008

My husband and I go to visit our 22 year old daughter who is a human rights activist living in the West Bank. She lends us the benefit of her knowledge of Hebrew and Arabic to introduce us to the worlds she has discovered. She insists that we see the people behind the politics. She takes us past the wall that divides Israel and Palestine, to Dheisheh, a refugee camp in the West Bank where she works at the community center. My daughter pauses for a long moment and says Ibdaa, the name of the community center, means “to make something out of nothing.”

To reach Dheisheh we go through one of the many checkpoints dividing Israel and Palestine. There are more than fifty-seven checkpoints, each one with metal detectors, railings, and narrow passages that control long lines of people. It does not escape me that these checkpoints are like lines drawn in the sand with a history of tension, bloodshed and shattered dreams on both sides.

A small sense of dread and curiosity accompanies me as we approach the checkpoint. The walls are painted green and remind me of an underground subway station. An Israeli solider sits in a blast-resistant glass booth with a rifle at his side. I glimpse into his eyes to see the young face and posture of a teenager, eighteen or nineteen years old at most. As we approach the window I search my backpack and pockets for my passport, sorting through chewing gum wrappers, stubs of airline tickets, scraps of paper with names and addresses of people I am supposed to call but won’t when I reach Jerusalem. The soldier glances at our American passports and waves us through without a moment of hesitation. An American passport is like a “get home free” pass and allows easy access to both Israel and Palestine. I find the checkpoint to be mildly annoying like a bad day getting through security at the airport, yet I am uneasy as I look behind me and see the long lines of women, men and children waiting restlessly, who simply want to return their homes.

Palestinians must have a special permit to leave the camp and work in Jerusalem. As they go through the checkpoint it is not a casual wave of the hand. Long lines are part of the ritual of entry and exit for their homes. While I experience a checkpoint as annoying and inconvenient, the Palestinian woman next to me describes it as a ritual of humiliation. She says, my daughter translates, it is a daily reminder that she lives in an occupied territory where her movement is controlled and limited. The checkpoints interfere with her ability to find a job and to be with her friends and loved ones in other parts of Palestine. Panic invades her sense of well-being each time she has to stand in line to pass through a checkpoint. She experiences many of the symptoms of posttraumatic stress. For her the checkpoint is laced with fear and rage.

Later I return to Jerusalem to meet my Israeli colleague for coffee. He sees the checkpoints as unfortunate, yet an essential and important source of safety and protection from suicide bombers. He confides that his parents and his uncle were killed in the Holocaust. “Threats to safety run deep in our psyches,” he explains. Many Israelis are immigrants who have experienced oppression and racial hatred. He adds that he is afraid every day for his nineteen year old daughter’s safety. She is a soldier in the Israeli army. All Israelis are required to serve for two years when they turn eighteen, he reminds me.

He asks, “How do you feel about your daughter working in the West Bank?”

I take my time to answer; this is not a simple question, and he does not ask it lightly. “Proud and afraid,” I say softly. He nods as if he understands both feelings equally.

I am struck with the different trauma narratives of Israelis and Palestinians. Each is informed by the complex mixture of individual identities, religious, ethnic, and immigrant status, coupled with the historical and generational traumas that live in the very cells of their bodies.

A checkpoint: a mild annoyance, a trauma of humiliation, a hope for safety. Narratives informed by diverse political and historical realities. The different narratives more often than not are too difficult to acknowledge, creating polarization, conflict and human suffering.

As I return to my work I find I am looking through the lens of culture and diversity, placing trauma in a larger context. I am grateful for these lessons. However, in the quiet moments I long to see my daughter in the safety of our home, in her ripped blue jeans and dirty tee shirt, sitting on the oak chair at our kitchen table in the morning light, sipping tea and and sharing the details of her day.