Meet Hibuki: A plush dog with long limbs and a sad expression that has amazing healing powers for children who have survived staggering trauma. When clinical psychologist Dr. Shai Hen-Gal began looking for a way to help Israeli children through the trauma of the Second Lebanon War, he never imagined that the project would take on a life of its own. Today, Hibuki, whose name roughly translates to “Huggy” in Hebrew, is a critical tool helping Ukrainian children cope with the trauma of the ongoing war.
“The first thing children do when they pick up a Hibuki puppet,” Hen-Gal says, “is let him hug them.” The children immediately bond with the puppet he says. “You ask the child how HIbuki is feeling and she says – he’s sad. And then you ask her why, and she projects her feelings onto the puppet. For example, she’ll say, ‘They’re shooting at Hibuki’s house,’ or ‘Hibuki is afraid something will happen to his Dad.’”
The children feel they can lean on Hibuki, Hen-Gal explains. “We give them the puppet as a gift, and we say, ‘you have to take care of him. If he gets scared at night, help him fall asleep. Calm him down and take him to kindergarten or to school.’ The children take on an active role, which facilitates a type of self-soothing. Instead of focusing on their own anxieties, they focus their attention elsewhere. We discovered that children who received the puppet suffer less anxiety and depression. The more they take care of the puppet, the better they feel.”
'Hibuki found us. We were looking around the shops, and suddenly we saw it'
Hen-Gal, 48, is director of mental health at the Amal group and a member of the National Council for Suicide Prevention. He first came up with Hibuki while working at a camp for evacuees from the north of Israel during the Second Lebanon War. He and the late Professor Avi Sadeh were among 20 or 30 psychologists at the camp, who were tasked with treating some 3,000 traumatized children. “There was no way we could really treat all of them. They also didn’t all need therapy. The puppet was a marvelous solution.”
“Hibuki found us. We were looking around the shops, and suddenly we saw it. It was hardly selling; none of the parents wanted to buy their kid a sad puppet. We thought it was perfect. The importer was happy to donate his entire stock, because they weren’t selling anyway. Since then, almost 100,000 puppets have been sold. The importer told me, ‘it’s pretty amazing, I gave you 27 puppets in 2006 and now look how far it has come.’”
From there, the Hibuki’s reach only expanded. Hen-Gal ran a similar program in collaboration with Dr. Flora Mor from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Dr. Yoav Simantov from the Education Ministry’s psychological service, to treat 100,000 children in Sderot and the Gaza border communities. After the tsunami in 2011, Hen-Gal traveled to Japan several times to treat children there. “I realized something very sad,” he says. “The fears and anxieties of Japanese children were the same as the fears and anxieties of children in Sderot: Will there be another tsunami? What’s going to happen to my house? The only difference is that man-made disasters cause children greater distress. When the trauma is caused by a natural disaster, as with a tsunami, you don’t feel as if someone is deliberately trying to hurt you.”
“We published our findings in an article in the Journal of Pediatrics, the most important publication in that field, and then the Tehran Newsletter quoted us and suggested that the same technique be used to help traumatized children in Tehran. They didn’t say that it was Israeli research, they just said it came from the Middle East,” he says.
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And now you’re working in the terrible circumstances in Ukraine.
“The children there are experiencing a tremendous crisis. Their world has been destroyed and amid all the chaos, suddenly they have a puppet who is also sad. The child is no longer alone, and he or she gets attached to the puppet.”
According to figures from the UN, 4.5 million Ukrainian children have been displaced. “Leaving home is dramatic for children. They’re also in enormous shock, because the war caught them by surprise. The day before the war started, they were living normal lives, and suddenly they’re being bombarded. And the third thing is that families are being split up: In the best case, the father stayed behind to help defend the city. In the worst case, the father was killed.”
“Mothers and children are dealing with these three difficult elements, including worrying about the father. They had no psychological preparation. It’s not like Israel, which is a veritable laboratory for stressful situations. If you want to be a crisis researcher, Israel is the perfect place – we’ve got disasters, terror attacks, wars, you name it.”
A few days after the war in Ukraine broke out, Hen-Gal received a call from an educational consultant from Ashdod, Dafna Sharon. He had provided her students with Hibuki puppets several years earlier during a bout of rocket fire. During a Zoom call with 150 children from Jewish schools in Ukraine, an eight-year-old boy from Kyiv shared his story with her.
“The boy’s father came home and said they had 10 minutes to pack up and flee because the Russians were about to start bombing. They started driving and then the boy realized he’d forgotten his tablet at home. And that was his whole world – games, his connection with friends. He started crying, but he wouldn’t tell his father what was wrong, because he didn’t want his father to turn around and go back. But the father stopped the car and insisted.”
“The father said, ‘You know, I actually forgot some documents too, so I’ll let you off here at the subway station. Take shelter and I’ll go home to get them.’ He never came back. He was killed.”
“So heartbreaking. I don’t think the father really forgot any documents. I think he just didn’t want his son to feel guilty if something happened.”
Hen-Gal says they haven’t been able to locate the boy. “If he had received rapid psychological intervention, the chances of helping him would have been greater,” he says.
'In one of our instructional Zooms a therapist said she had never seen so many quiet children – it’s not fear, it’s dread'
“Another story we heard was about a four-year-old girl from Mariupol,” Hen-Gal recounts. “When the Russians started bombing the city, her mother had to stay behind to take care of the grandmother. She sent the girl with a neighbor on a long march to the border. The girl got lost amid all the bombardments. When they found her, she was freezing from the cold. She couldn’t speak. When they changed her clothes, they saw that her name, date of birth and mother’s telephone number were written on her back. They tried calling, but the phone was disconnected. It took a week until they found her mother. Later they saw the same thing with other children – that their parents wrote their information on their backs.”
Hen-Gal explains that Sharon was among a group of Ukrainian-speaking Israeli therapists that were volunteering with Ukrainians. They had seen horror stories on social media about children who had gotten lost or whose parents were killed. Sharon suggested organizing a Zoom training for Ukrainian therapists on the Hibuki method. Some 40-50 people signed up for the talk in early April. When Hen-Gal signed on, 230 people were waiting for him.
How did it go?
“They started pulling out all sorts of puppets that they had on hand, and started writing to one another and to us in the Zoom chat. When we asked them what they thought, the screen filled up with heart emojis. They said they were going to start using it immediately. We finished the Zoom chat at 10:30 and a minute later I called Dafna. We both burst into tears.”
“It was so moving because we realized we’d given them a tool to help hundreds of children. Later on, we understood that the project was no longer ours, it was now beyond our control,” he says.
What do you mean?
“The Zoom recording is running independently. Dafna says it’s spread all over the place and people are helping children with similar puppets. It’s really taken on a life of its own and snowballed in an unstoppable way. Even if we disappeared, the program would live on. I’m a clinical psychologist – for me, it’s an amazing feeling to no longer be needed.”
Hen-Gal adds that the director of the Kyiv circus saw the Zoom talk and got in touch, asking how to make the puppets. The entire cast of the circus, from the lion-tamer to the acrobats, dress as clowns and cheer up children sheltering in the city’s subway tunnels.
“This puppet has clearly been touched by the hand of God,” Hen-Gal says. “I’ve been doing this for 15 years now, and I’m still continually amazed by the powers of this puppet. I’ve tried using other puppets before, because Hibuki is manufactured in China and it takes time to ship it, but nothing has worked the way this one does.”
Where do they get Hibukis from in Ukraine?
“Initially, we sent 12 puppets... Aside from that, they are improvised. They make them with socks, or with existing puppets – what’s really important is to get the children help right away, because a month later it will be too late. We also got in touch with a puppet factory in Lviv that agreed to manufacture the puppets according to our specifications. They sent me a picture and I gave them comments, and the next day there was already a pilot. My only condition was that they make them immediately.”
Who is financing the puppets’ production?
“The Amal Group, where I work, immediately agreed to fund the production of a large quantity. Lately, parents from Sderot and in the communities near Gaza, whose children received Hibuki over the past decade, have offered to donate the puppet that helped their children so it can help children who are suffering in Ukraine.”
Tell me about some of the children who have received the puppet.
'It’s important to remember that every person, and especially every child, has a strong natural inner compass that directs them toward growth'
“There are many touching stories. A first-grader, who was a happy and independent little girl before the war, reverted to bedwetting. She is afraid to sleep alone and flings herself down on the floor at every loud noise. She received a Hibuki the day before yesterday and she hasn’t parted from it. Yesterday was the first night she went to sleep alone. Sergei, who’s five, arrived from Mariupol which has simply been wiped off the face of the earth. He saw people dying around him and hasn’t spoken for 10 days. He arrived at a refugee camp and received the Hibuki. He hasn’t let go of it and he also smiled for the first time. Bogdan, whose father was killed, bursts into tears from time to time. Today, in the middle of an activity he started crying and a little girl named Nadia gave him her Hibuki.”
“It’s very sad. In one of our instructional Zooms a therapist said she had never seen so many quiet children – it’s not fear, it’s dread. They are paralyzed,” he says.
It’s like the stories from the Holocaust.
“It’s the total destruction of their lives and a lot of uncertainty, families dismantled. It’s impossible to comprehend – 4.5 million homeless children.”
What can we learn from all this?
“Today, therapists have tremendous power through social networks. Ten years ago, to help children in Japan, we had to organize a delegation and obtain permits. It was a huge operation… Through Facebook and Zoom, we’ve had an effect on a huge number of people. It’s a game changer and shows the importance of clinical community interventions.” Hen-Gal explains that he and Sharon ran a training session for a group of 450 psychologists and art therapists from various organizations in Ukraine. The group meets weekly for additional training on the Hibuki method, crisis intervention, dealing with parents in high-pressure situations, loss, grief and more. “It affords a bit of optimism that with a small budget, we can virtually build programs that help tens of thousands of people,” he says.
Hen-Gal first began working with children and trauma in 2001, while he was studying for his master’s degree. “There was a shooting in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood, and I told my lecturer that I wanted to do a study and see what was happening to the children there. She told me there was no chance, that it would take four months just to get the Education Ministry’s approval. I said I’d try, and the next day I had a signed authorization form.”
Within a few weeks, Hen-Gal submitted a preliminary report to the ministry. “One of our conclusions was that the way they dealt with it wasn’t right. The day after a shooting the teacher would ask the children to talk about their emotions. My recommendation was active coping. I told them: Let the kids fill sandbags and help in every possible way, even when it’s not necessary. They started giving the children tasks and that was very significant.”
Hen-Gal continued on this path, dedicating his doctorate to children’s coping mechanisms for traumas of war and terror. Later on, working with the Joint Distribution Committee’s Ashalim organization and the Education Ministry, Hen-Gal helped develop a song for children to sing during rocket alert sirens.
“They sing it when there is a warning siren, and they have to run to the protected space. It’s gone into all the kindergartens and the Education Ministry has adopted it.”
What do they sing?
“Something like ‘Quick, quick to the protected space, because, now, here it is unsafe; boom, boom, boom, my body shakes; toom, toom, toom; I will get through, because I have changed.’ They sing it and do motions and special breaths. They practice it and when there is a siren they run with the song. They had a problem, because children would freeze when the sirens sounded and wouldn’t move. Teachers had only 15 seconds to get them into the shelter.”
There has been a lot of anxiety here as well over the recent return of the terror attacks. Do you have any tips for parents and educators?
“Sure. When an emergency occurs, and it causes stress, it’s important to remember that these are normal reactions to an abnormal situation. There are several simple tools that can help us help our loved ones: Be with the people who need us, show them our commitment and tell them we’re here with them and we will help; give reliable information about what’s happening, while constructing the situation. Explain it chronologically: What has happened, what is happening and what we expect to happen next. That way, we restore the sense of control that has been undermined. Moderate exposure to the media, encourage activity, give everyone present a task, and ask children to be responsible for something. Maintain a routine and radiate the belief that we will recover and return to normal.”
“It’s important to remember that every person, and especially every child, has a strong natural inner compass that directs them toward growth, that allows them to successfully overcome difficult life events. Therefore, often a brief intervention is enough to get them back on track for development and flourishing.”