Remembering Palestinian mental health pioneer Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj

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-Sarraj, 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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I am very saddened to read that psychiatrist Dr Eyad el-Sarraj has died. He was an inspirational figure, who has done more than any other Palestinian to address mental health needs amongst the Palestinian people and rightly saw the association between poor mental health and the violation of basic human rights of the Palestinian people by the State of Israel.
He was also fearless in speaking out when those human rights were oppressed by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas government.
My wife Dr Pauline Cutting and I have had the privilege to meet Dr Eyad on several occasions. His intellect and infectious dry humour stood out.
The Palestinian people has lost one of its great champions. His death of cancer at a relatively young age saddens us all, but he lives on in our memory and will remain a source of inspiration.

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It's so sad to learn of the passing away of Dr. Eyad al-Sarraj. Though I hadn't known of him before, it was truly heartening reading this piece. I've been regularly following and blogging on the immeasurable suffering of the people of Gaza, West Bank, Iraq, Syria, Kashmir and the Rohingyas .. particularly children and the elderly. Needless to say, such horrific imperialistic abuse and sectarian violence is causing irreparable emotional devastation. I've asked myself so many times .... why isn't anyone talking about emotional counseling and mental health treatments for them; or are the North Americans, Europeans and Ashkenazis the only ones entitled to feel emotionally distraught?

Indeed, “If you’re not enjoying human rights, then you’re definitely not enjoying sound mental health.” I couldn't agree more! May Allah Almighty reward Dr. Sarraj and shower him with His choicest blessings. Ameen.

Despite the very difficult circumstances strangling Gaza, I pray and hope, InshAllah, there will be others who will follow Dr. Sarraj's footsteps and utilize the Gaza Community Mental Program to help so many unfortunate ones who truly need such assistance.

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.