Searching for Hope in the Middle of a War Zone
Journey of Hope is the 40-year-old Libyan American psychiatrist Omar Reda’s bold and courageous pledge to firstly dedicate himself as a mental health doctor to the cause of post-Revolution Libya.
He wants to contribute towards a country that can be at peace and harmony with itself; and for him to be able to take a leading role in healing his country from not just the outside but the inside injuries it has suffered for over the last four decades.
The book is a brief but extraordinary account of his life that shows it is possible to gain a closure of one’s difficult personal experiences, even when one is led by forces bigger than oneself. Indeed, coincidences do not exist according to the legendary psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung and synchronicity occurs in all of our lives, if only we open our eyes to its guidance and lessons therein.
Omar Reda had to flee Libya at the age of 26 for fear of his life, as Gaddafi blacklisted him in 1999 for the humanitarian medical work he was doing as a physician with some of the families of those who were imprisoned or executed by the former regime. It was his father who saved his life by warning him of the danger that he must immediately leave with no time for proper goodbyes.
Forced to escape, he sought asylum abroad in the United Kingdom and after the United States; where he was drawn to the field of psychiatry and global mental health, graduating from Harvard with a Masters in the field in 2007. Little could he then foresee February 2011 when he would not just be able to return home, but that his medical specialty would be of the utmost significance and be put to great use.
Journey of Hope is also very much a book about the Revolution and all the individual and collective sacrifices made by the Libyan people in their struggle to topple a cruel dictator who abused them for decades. It is about the sung and unsung heroes who risked or sacrificed their lives for freedom and liberty.
Above all, however, it is the writer’s unique mission to return to Libya to help, guide and support his fellow countrymen and women as a psychiatrist and to tend to the invisible psychological wounds suffered as a result of so much fighting, pain, hurt, trauma, oppression, rape, imprisonment and so much more.
To quote Omar Reda: “[In Libya], we can no longer hide our head in the sand, stuff our skeletons in the closet or swipe our dirt under the rug, our closets are full they are about to explode, our laundry is dirty but we cannot clean it unless we admit that it is dirty, there is nothing wrong about exposing what happened, the first step towards recovery is to admit that you have a problem, lack of insight is a poor prognostic indicator in psychiatry, lack of motivation is yet another one.” (page 87).
Omar Reda is concerned that this psychological terrain has been neglected and is still not being widely addressed by the government nor the people, however it is most urgent and necessary. The focus must be on the mental, emotional and feeling-wellbeing of the Libyans if there is to be any hope of lasting peace.
He also strongly believes that this mammoth task could and should be achieved by the Libyans themselves in the long run, with only the initial help and support from the relevant foreign aide professionals, NGO’s and charities already on the ground. He is also seeking the backing of the Ministry of Health that has unfortunately not been so forthcoming.
He makes a number of proposals as best strategy to make this challenge a reality and taking into account these facts: that in Libya today, there is only one psychiatrist per 200,000 Libyans, that pre-Revolution, there were only two very poorly equipped mental hospitals, that the role of mental health professionals was misunderstood and stigma attached to psychiatric symptoms.
And more facts. It is estimated that there are more than 25,000 cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), ranging from children to adults, military personnel as well as physicians who had to tend to the wounded. Plus, one cannot forget the consequences of Gaddafi’s rule that has caused, according to Reda: “moral corruption, depression, despair, PTSD, addiction to drugs, anger, grief, blood and revenge lust.”
One of the main proposals is to train the Libyans who are already working in the field of psychology and medicine or give support to those who have already built specific charities for men, women and children. Efforts must be unified and consolidated to build the much-needed mental health care infrastructure and therapeutic possibilities.
Already, Reda has immersed himself in this quest and contributed to the works of NGO’s and medical charities on the ground; beginning with his first visit to the country during the Revolution and his ongoing returns to oversee a number of initiatives focused in this area.
In particular, he is also fond of his work with children – whom he believes are the most vulnerable – by having offered some of them a safe space to freely express their fears and find ways to comprehend what has happened and give them hope for a brighter future. He is also concerned with developing support groups for the mental health professionals themselves to prevent them from compassion fatigue.
One current initiative that Reda started in June 2011 with the support of local NGOs is the Libya Al-Shefa Healing Project. This, he says, contains seven different goals but needs the government’s moral and financial backing to succeed. The seven goals are: psycho-education, raising standards of local professionals, support circles for fighters, support circles for families of fighters and the missing or deceased, a hotline, art and play therapy for children, and reconciliation efforts.
One can only wish him the very best of luck in this mission.
Note: This article was first published circa October 2013