When I arrived in Eilat yesterday afternoon at a OneFamily retreat for victims of terror from the South, I dropped my bags and went straight to the pool where I knew I would find many families escaping the recurring sirens in their hometowns. They had done the same as I, dropping off their suitcases and getting situated by the pool in order to try and free themselves of some stress. I began to introduce myself to a couple of women who seemed to be in pure bliss. One women told me she hadn’t seen daylight in a week. She got into the pool and we continued to chat as she stretched and relaxed. Suddenly, we heard a high pitched, slow sound. Everyone fell silent. Heads turned toward what had turned out to be a song playing on the speakers at the pool. We took a moment to be sure that the sound was not what we had all feared, and after confirming for the women that it was simply a song, we took a deep breath, and the direction of our conversation shifted. We began to speak about the constant sirens these families have been experiencing.
For the past two weeks families in Ashkelon and Ashdod have spent their lives in constant fear. Leaving their bomb shelters or stairwells for only minutes at a time, for the bathroom, or to grab some food, such families have heard siren after siren, explosion after explosion, in their respective cities. They are here because they need a break. They need to take a shower that lasts longer than 12 seconds, they need to go to the makolet without running for shelter. They need to relax and talk to people; they need to be together and strengthen one another.
“Want some baby oil? You need a tan,” I was told by my new friend, Tali Cohen. Like any real Israeli, she was already lathering my legs with the oil before I had the chance to say no. Mali’s family lives in Ashkelon. She’s 22, her sister, Michal, is 15, and she has a younger brother who is currently at home with their father as well. I spent plenty of time relaxing at the pool with Tali, Michal and their mother, Sarah. We talked about boys, my American-ness, the beach; typical girl things.
Within minutes of meeting Rachel she told me their family’s story. A few years ago, when rockets were showering down on Ashkelon as they are today, the Cohen family heard a siren. It was early in the morning, and the family members were all sleeping, except for Sarah. Frantically, she ran from room to room awaking her children. Michal had a hard time waking up. Sarah nudged her until Michal she joined her family in the stairwell just in time for a rocket to pierce through their house, directly through Michal’s bedroom where she was peacefully asleep 60 seconds prior.
Michal lives with severe PTSD. She has gone through extensive therapy, and takes psychiatric medication. It has been an extremely long road of recovery — and because of the current rocket attacks, Michal is experiencing a huge set backs, her mother feels that she is back to square 1.
The Cohen family is now on this retreat with hopes of relief from fear and worries. They are relaxing by the pool, resting up, as they haven’t slept in days, and partaking in multiple forms of therapy, such as hydrotherapy and yoga.
As I was sitting with Sarah and Tali this morning, however, they received the unfortunate news that a siren had once again been heard in Ashkelon, and then another, and another. Sarah immediately called her family members, one after the other. Her son, along with other children have been in the shelter all day, coloring, and finding ways to pass the time and alleviate their fear. Her father, on the other hand, is too old to stay in the shelter all day so he simply sits and listens to the sirens, one after another, and tells his daughter confidently that he is not afraid, so as not to leave her worried. “He is afraid,” she admit to me.
The next call Sarah made was to her sister in law who was on speaker on another line with their neighbors worker, Abir, from Aza. “He is a good man,” she told me, “he is in Aza now in the house that they were all sent to and told not to leave.” She asked him if they also have sirens, and if they hear the “booms.” Abir told Sarah and her sister in law about his hatred for Hamas. He lives under their reign and hopes for an end to all of the violence as soon as possible, just as those in the south, and all over israel today.
Though this retreat has lent some 300 victims of terror an incredible opportunity to take a breath of fresh air, they cannot escape the reality of their current situations. They are worried sick about their friends and family at home. They are already in fear of what it will be like to return home tomorrow night. The different forms of therapy offered here have allowed all of these families to relax momentarily while they await peace and quiet at home.
Despite the terrible trauma and stress these families have experienced, each time I asked someone where they would move if they had the chance, they told me “nowhere.” They love their neighborhoods in Ashdod, Ashkelon, Beer Sheva, etc. “All of my family and friends are there. Right now it’s scary but I love it there and I’m not going anywhere.”
*All names have been replaced for privacy