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Remembering Palestinian mental health pioneer Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj

Ali Abunimah

December 19, 2013



It’s hard for me to believe that it was in 2002 that Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj, the legendary Palestinian mental health pioneer, visited Chicago and spoke at the International House.

It seems like yesterday. Although that is the only time I met him, he was someone I long admired not only for his visionary work but his political courage. In person Dr. El-Sarraj had the same buoyant energy and wry humor that came through in his writing.

Dr. El-Sarra, who lived in the besieged Gaza Strip, passed away yesterday from cancer.

Born in 1944 in Beir al-Saba ("Beersheva" in present-day Israel), El-Sarraj became a refugee, along with his family, during the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948.

He studied medicine in Egypt and psychiatry at the prestigious Institute of Psychiatry in London.

In 1990, he founded the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, which, as he explains in the video interview above, was based on a simple premise: "If you’re not enjoying human rights, then you’re definitely not enjoying sound mental health."

The video was produced last year by Pam Bailey for the "Child’s View from Gaza" art exhibit.

Indefatigable

El-Sarraj recognized the vast need for mental healthcare among Palestinians living under traumatic and oppressive circumstances and he did as much to destigmatize mental illness and mental health as to create an infrastructure to provide services.

El-Sarraj particularly focused on the situation of children and young people, who form the majority of Gaza’s nearly 1.7 million residents.

He was indefatigable. Earlier this year Rana Baker wrote about a meeting El-Sarraj hosted at his home for young people like herself.

He asked them to help organize a conference on the effects of Israel’s November 2012 military assault.

Never shy to speak out against the Israeli occupation or the Palestinian Authority, El-Sarraj was jailed three times by the PA for his opinions between December 1995 and June 1996 where he experienced torture and solitary confinement.

He was one of the very few Palestinian figures as respected among Palestinians as he was abroad, where he won numerous prizes for his work including the 1998 Martin Ennals Award for International Human Rights Defenders.

When he won the 2010 Olof Palme Prize, El-Sarraj said, "I am proud and happy to receive this prize, but I consider that the real heroes are the victims of violence, torture and war … This prize gives me hope and encourages me to continue to fight to defend those whose rights have been abused, and to work for justice and peace."

He did that to the very end.



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