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Friday, January 23, 2015

Stars in Our Crown

It's been a few months since I have posted anything. Part of that is my hectic schedule. Since September I have been working two jobs- teaching high school literature and editing for a local news website- and that has taken up most of my time. 

But the other reason is one I want to address in this post. For some time now I've been doing a lot of self-care, dealing with the aftereffects of being a foreign correspondent and living in a foreign culture. It's not often talked about, but journalists, aid workers and counsellors sometimes deal with what in some cases is called compassion fatigue...and in more serious cases "secondary post-traumatic stress disorder", or SPTSD. After hearing story after story of violence, abuse, and chaos, we can start to feel the effects of those stories in our own minds and bodies. Secondary post-traumatic stress disorder mimics many of the serious symptoms that regular PTSD brings- nightmares, depression, overreaction to situations that should not be deemed dangerous, trouble sleeping, and problems with relationships. If this is coupled with other stressful circumstances or personal trauma, the symptoms can be exacerbated. 

Part of my self care means that at certain points, I try not to read news about violence or human rights abuses other than those issues that I am currently writing on or editing. Of course, it often reaches me anyway, and if it is an issue of particular interest, I can't help tweeting or writing about it. Another outlet involves releasing stress through creative means. I write poetry, paint, and journal. Most of those things don't show up here, but today I wanted to share the most recent poem I wrote. 

A few weeks ago I got the news that a former colleague of mine at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Tunis was reported to have been killed by the Islamic State in Libya. He was captured months back, and a news report on one of the terrorist websites had photos of him and another journalist, claiming they had been executed. 

Though I am far away in Egypt, the shockwaves of this hit me hard. Though I didn't know Sofiane Chourabi well, I saw him every week for the months I worked at IWPR, and the possibility that he was dead was difficult to handle. My best friend, who also worked at IWPR and is now with Human Rights Watch, has been able to give me the scattered updates she's received. The journalism community in Tunis was in a state of shock and sorrow, which quickly turned to anger when the Tunisian government failed to react quickly enough to ascertain the two journalists' wellbeing. 

When I heard the news, I immediately reached out to friends and family for their prayers and support. This is not the first time something like this has happened. My mother told me that news like this, "Makes your resume scary, in retrospect." To me, it means I was, and am, doing something that matters. But the conversation got me to thinking of how, as journalists, we often have the unhealthy practice of measuring our value in litres of blood, numbers of bullets and protests, and even, scarily enough, how many colleagues we've lost. Leonard Cohen once said that, "Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash." These are the ashes of this experience so far. 

Stars in our crown
Another one dead
But he’s just one of many
And I didn’t even write about him today
There are so many more to cry about
No guts, no glory
So often the guts aren’t ours
But it’s our job to shout about them
And scramble for the green glory
That comes trickling like a polluted river
War sells
And don’t we have an obligation?
Some are more obligated than us
We call it bravery…or insanity
And their deaths rub off on us
Lending us a sheen of relevance
The brighter it glows, the more the river flows
That’s what they say
So we place them like stars in our crown
But first we have to pluck them
Out of our bleeding hearts
And stop up the holes with newsprint
The smaller injustices are bullet holes
Tiny pin dots of teargas from police
The boom of the explosions and shots
Abuse from the bystanders, a daily assault
(Because words are weapons, whispered or shouted or written)
The chants of protests in my head while I sleep
I take these out too,
This time from my mind
And pin them like sequins on a diadem
Leaving air rushing through my skull
And through the airwaves
What if there’s too much air?
What if there’s not enough newsprint?
What if I run out of heart, of skull?
What if, next time, it’s me?

My friend informed me that sources are now saying Sofiane is safe, "but we don't know yet." If you're the praying type, please continue to keep Sofiane and his family and friends in your prayers. You can also spread awareness of his captivity, in hopes that the Tunisian government will act to verify his whereabouts, on Twitter using the hashtag #FreeSofiane.

Sofiane speaking to a soldier in Tunisia (from his Facebook page)

If you are a journalist, aid worker or counsellor who is dealing with SPTSD (or PTSD for that matter), I encourage you to reach out for support. Find people you can talk to, and ways that you can express your pain, sorrow, guilt and anger. Without your mental and physical health, you can't help anyone. Take care of yourselves. 

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