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What You Can Learn from an International First Responder

Humanity First co-founder Dr. Essam Daod provides first responder mental health support worldwide. Here’s what the TED speaker knows about managing crisis

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BY Damon Brown - 10 Apr 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

The average person runs away from chaos, but that is often when our special skills are needed the most. Psychologist, TED Fellow and Humanity Crew co-founder Dr. Essam Daod specializes in crisis management. However, instead of stopping the drama, his group's main goal is to provide psychological support immediately after a traumatic event. We’re talking Syrian refugees just as they make it to Greece and other war-torn survivors just after an attack.

As Daod gets ready to speak at TED today, he shares when he found his calling, why Maslow’s hierarchy doesn’t help much in a crisis and how the collective can matter more than the individual.

Inc.: When was the first moment you realized that providing first-response psychological support in war or disaster areas was your calling?

Daod: I received a WhatsApp message that read “We need a doctor at KAYA beach, a woman not breathing”. KAYA is a small bay next to Skala Skamya in the Greek island of Lesvos. It was freezing cold on the shore and, under the rain, a man was kneeling next to an old woman’s dead body. A few meters from him under the trees, a woman was crying, surrounded by her children who didn’t understand what was happening. Around them there were a number of volunteers going back and forth holding their heads. I approached them and asked them to help me take the woman away from the shore. They responded angrily “Don't touch, we are waiting for the doctor!” I tell them, “I'm the doctor.” “So do something!” they answered. “There's nothing to do, she's dead,” I said.

I went to the man, I talked to him, comforted him in Arabic, explained to him that his mother is dead. He looked at me with an angry look and told me, “We're waiting for the doctor.” “I'm the doctor!” “So do something ...”. After a few minutes I found myself standing in the middle of this scene crying, wondering 'where the hell I am'. I looked at one of the kids and he looked at me with a look begging me to stop this.

At that moment, I remembered that I was not just a doctor who came to save the body I am also the psychiatrist who is supposed to save the souls.

I wiped my tears, I asked from one of the volunteers to hold the Ambo and started to ventilate, I started the chest press to her dead body. Everyone gathered around us, completely silent during each chest press.

After a few minutes I stopped and announced the same thing that I said before: “She is dead and there is nothing to do”. This time they accepted it and started to cry. The father and mother hugged their children, and the volunteers started to organize the transportation and drove the family to the camp. This is my first five minutes on the Greek island of Lesvos, and this is the first refugee boat I assisted.

And this was the first time that I understood the importance of mental health support in this very early stage of humanitarian aid.

You’ve mentioned that your group essentially flips Maslow’s hierarchy upside down by emphasizing self-realization/community over some other priorities. Can you expand on that?

We believe that if you want to reach the individual, especially in a time of crisis, then you need to reach him as part of the collective. Maslow`s hierarchy addresses each individual as if he has his own needs physiologically or psychologically without emphasizing the collective need that drives us as individuals. Maslow’s hierarchy may work in our daily Western life, but in crisis zones, we challenge it. We also believe that there is no difference between the body and the mind: Both need to be addressed and treated at the same time and on the same level, not separately as in Maslow’s hierarchy.

We don't say that mental health should be replacing other needs and aid provided in crisis zones. What we are trying to achieve is to bring the mental health aid to the forefront of humanitarian aid, next to the other basic needs, because we believe that there is no difference between the body and the mind.

You emphasize building local community leadership rather than trying to just providing short-term help. What would be the consequences if you took the opposite approach, trying to push your values/ideas on a community rather than helping it build itself back up?

I always say “work through mentality, not against the mentality”. I will give one example of last year’s activities in one of the camps in Greece.

The UN Refugee Agency and the big NGOs love women empowerment groups, and we agree with them. When you try to push Western ideas on a conservative Eastern community, though, the effect become the opposite. In this case, the women's empowerment groups paradoxically increased violence against women because they were a direct threat to the Eastern family structure. Alternatively, we empowered the men of the families, and through them we empowered the women, and then the whole family unites.

Lastly, what is the biggest lesson you’ve gained from being on the front lines of human hope and desperation?

Not to give up, because the little things we do are great for someone else.

 

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