Dr. Bela Ben Gershon is used to helping civilians in general and children in particular who have experienced trauma due to war or conflict.
Ben Gershon is in charge of the Resilience Center in Sderot and other Gaza Strip border communities, but currently, she is at Israel's field hospital Kochav Meir in Ukraine as head of the mental health field.
"The children who arrive here have suffered a terrible loss," Ben Gershon says. "Some children lost everything, and their house is destroyed. When we meet them, they barely talk and find it really hard to open up. Their eyes look empty, I can't describe it, it's like something turned off inside of them."
One of the methods to help the children cope is drawing. "It's a tool that allows you to diagnose what the child has been through. And it's also an expression of wishes, for something they want. Some children come with severe anxiety and through their drawings, as in playing, it allows us to work with their anxieties and release them."
Ben Gershon shared that one of the drawings depicted a child fleeing his home at the last minute before he and his family were caught under heavy Russian fire. "On the way to the train, they came under gunfire and had to crawl under cars to escape and get to the station."
"I'm sitting in front of him and he's not talking. So, I asked him if he wanted to draw with me. He drew an amazing piece — an animal with the body of a giraffe and the tail of the Little Mermaid and the legs of a horse. He explained that the tail of the Little Mermaid helps him escape faster from submarines. It's an animal that can survive in any situation. And just like that, suddenly he talks and smiles," Ben Gershon described.
According to Ben Gershon, the reactions of the Ukrainian refugees are similar to those of Israeli children who face rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.
"The refugees suffer from the acute stress response. Among children, the condition expresses itself in a few ways: They have trouble sleeping, nightmares, a lot of them return bedwetting, and refuse to leave their parents. These are the same symptoms we see in Israeli children on the Gaza border."
"We had a kid who was afraid to close his eyes so he won't see the images of war again, and he didn't sleep because of it. And there was another ten-year-old whose mother had left the house to get water and he never saw her again. He arrived with his grandmother and through games and drawing he shared with us his story," she added.
Psychiatrist and expert on sexual trauma and eating disorders at Lev Hasharon Mental Health Center Dr. Marina Belyak said that "everyone has sleeping disorders and intrusive memories. But the treatment of children is more creative, a lot of drawing, although adults can also be treated with the same methods."
As part of the treatment, doctors offered the refugees to send their drawings to children on the Gaza border. "The goal was to do something to cope with helplessness, to make them feel they are not alone in the world, that there are other children like them. And also let them experience love and unity with Israeli children by supporting them so they won't be just the victims," said Dr. Belyak.
Sasha, a 12-year-old from the Luhansk region, asked to meet with an Israeli girl. "I propose friendship to a girl from Israel because we are alike because both in Israel and in Ukraine there are wars," he wrote in his drawing.
Dasha, 13 years old, painted a self-portrait, with the right side being an external mirror image — one side of the looked normative, while the other side is a mirror of the inner mind, which displayed a sense of death. "That's what I feel inside, but on the outside, no one can see what I'm really experiencing," she said.
Twelve-year-old Ola from Kharkiv drew a piece that reflects a desire for hope and optimism that the situation in Ukraine and around the world would get better at the end of the war.
Earlier this week, the doctors held a farewell meeting with the children and brought them drawings that were sent from children living near the Gaza border. One of the Israeli girls wrote them in Russian, "Don't be afraid. I love you."
"They were very excited," said Ben Gershon. "And so was I. They say you shouldn't be afraid, and you should show courage and follow your heart. Many of the treatment methods we employ at the Gaza border were also used here in Ukraine. And I don't rule out the relationship between the children continuing, but only when they become mentally stronger."