The moment the sirens go off in Be'er Sheva, the otherwise sleepy headquarters of Eran (the Israeli Association for Emotional First Aid by Telephone) quickly becomes a buzz of activity.
On normal days no more than three volunteers are usually needed to deal with incoming phone calls, but since the center is situated in a bomb shelter, once a state of "red alert" is declared, the doors swing open and residents of the Ramot neighborhood pour in. They are usually looking for a safe haven, not emotional advice.
"It's very strange," says Dr. Shula Fiore, the director of the Be'er Sheva branch of Eran, "for us it's home, and for them it's a shelter. People come here with their dogs and children. We host them while continuing to answer phone calls."
Eran volunteers in Be'er Sheva say the escalation in rocket attacks from Gaza is particularly upsetting young teens and children, who usually do not use the organization's hotline. In the past few days, however, they have been flooding the center with calls.
Meanwhile, as we were speaking, a local 14-year-old girl called in, to complain that the endless television, Internet and radio coverage of the events has caused her severe anxiety.
"The fact that people are so closely tuned to the media causes problems," said Talma Zivan, a volunteer with Eran for the past 10 years. "They keep hearing the coverage and are scared. We have to do things to distract their attention."
Zivan experienced the need to cope with nonstop calls from agitated citizens during Operation Cast Lead and other periods of escalating rocket attacks.
"During a period of war, the level of anxiety rises immensely. I live in this area and work with groups of parents. Many people need professional help after such periods. Youngsters who wet their beds will continue to do so afterward, and those who begin to sleep in their parents' beds or in protected rooms will continue to do so after the difficult period is over," Zivan explained.
Then another 14-year-old girl phoned - this time from Ashdod. Since schools remained closed on Sunday but work places continued to function, thousands of children and younger teens stayed home alone. Parents who couldn't take a day off and stay with their children in a protected room or shelter were forced to leave older children at home, despite the shelling.
'Why is this happening?'
"The girl kept asking me all the time, 'Why is this happening? Why are they shooting at us?'" said Miri Wetzberger, another Eran volunteer and resident of Be'er Sheva. "I told her that every period has its Haman [referring to the evil figure from the Purim story]. Children and youths are even more nervous than adults because they remain alone much of the time. The girl cried and I told her that I, too, am afraid to remain alone, and that I even asked my husband to come with me to work so I wouldn't have to make the trip alone. We give people the feeling that it is all right to feel afraid - that there are many others, like them, who are really upset. That fear is a legitimate feeling."
Meanwhile, Dr. Fiore offered a few more examples of the kind of calls Eran has been receiving during the past few days - from a 17 year-old from Be'er Sheva who was worried about his dogs; from another 17-year-old boy who had an anxiety attack, and after speaking with Eran volunteers went to the hospital; from a 12-year-old boy from a neighboring kibbutz, who was worried about his mother; and from an Israeli-Arab who lives in Be'er Sheva and was worried not only by the incoming shells, but also by the fierce anti-Arab sentiment he felt in the shelter where he was staying.
"There is a drastic increase in the number of calls," Fiore said. "It's the young people know who call in because they're upset. They experience the current situation but are also reacting to former traumas they had during Cast Lead, or other periods of escalation. They usually call because they don't want to feel that they're alone, or because they're worried about their parents. Making the call itself helps calm them down, and allows them to regain a sense of control over their lives."
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