Therapy Program With Animals Helps Sderot Kids Cope With Qassams

The 'Rooms of Tranquility' program treats children's prolonged reaction to trauma in the rocket stricken city.

Nine-year-old Michal, a fourth-grader at the Gil Rabin school in Sderot, uses Lego and rods to build a bomb shelter for tiny mice. This is part of a treatment program called "Rooms of Tranquillity," which includes pets. "Look, it's made layer on layer so the little mice will be really well-protected," says Michal, as she adds to the construction. "The mice aren't calm," she says with concern.

A typical child of Sderot, Michal grew up with Qassam rockets falling on the town. Her childhood was painted Color Red, the code name for the alarm warning of incoming rockets.

"We don't have a safe room in our house, and there's no bomb shelter in our building," she says. "When my parents weren't at home, and there was a rocket alarm, it was very scary, so me and my brothers hid behind the sofa and covered our ears with our hands."

Like other children in Sderot, Michal is still seeking protection and so she builds a bomb shelter and a safe room for the mice. The Rooms of Tranquillity program went into effect four years ago in schools in Afula to help children there cope with the reality of suicide bombers, but the model was soon copied for children in the south of the country.

"We understood that the children in the south did not have physical protection, and this kind of activity can offer them psychological protection, a kind of shelter for their souls," says Beth Reiss, the psychologist who runs the program. It has been introduced in two Ashkelon schools as well as 11 schools and 16 kindergartens in Sderot, and it covers 1,500 pupils.

"All the children in Sderot suffer from anxiety but we have professional staff who locate children suffering from special problems, and they go to the meetings in the Rooms of Tranquillity," Reiss says. "At first we thought we would deal with immediate reactions to the trauma," she says with a smile, "but as time went on, the treatment became treatment for prolonged reaction to trauma, and now that the fighting has stopped, it has already become post-traumatic treatment." She adds: "After the war, the children actually went back to school with the feeling that the entire nation supported them and understood their distress, and that they were not alone as in the past. At the same time, however, all the therapists reported that the children are in a state of uncertainty. They don't believe it has ended. Right now we are seeing them falling apart psychologically after a prolonged period of survival in a routine of ongoing Qassam attacks. Now expressions of anger, violence and aggression are coming to the fore. The war shook up the family unit, and the pressure, the upsetting of routine and the chaos have left the children in a situation of restlessness, tenseness, acting-out and lack of concentration with problems of being attentive and functioning."

Noa Dotan, who specializes in using animals therapeutically, says that with the animals children give expression to their feelings and vent their fears more easily, and that it is possible to learn about their psychological world from how they play with the pets. Dotan helps children in sixth grade to get close to animals who are kept in cages ( mice, hamsters, and parrots) while her dog Ruti moves among them. The 45-minute session begins with a chat from which it becomes clear that the children are not really convinced that the war is over.

"I don't believe that the war is really over," says Anat, and the other children nod their heads in agreement. "I don't really go out of the house yet. When the alarms went off, we would stand in the hallway in our house, because we don't have a shelter. I'm nervous all the time except for the day when I come here to play with the animals and to pet them. It's relaxing. That's the only day I don't fight with my mom at home."