Dr. Omar Reda, assistant professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University, will discuss his recent visit to Libya Friday, Nov. 18, as part of the Portland State Middle East Studies Center’s “Lunch & Learn” series.
“I’m going to talk about the Arab Spring and focus mainly from a psychosocial aspect. I want to talk briefly about the Libyan people’s struggle and the challenges that face them now that the regime is over,” Reda said. “Most likely they will need lots of work for that country to recover.”
Middle East Center outreach coordinator Elishiva Cohen believes that the lecture will increase students’ awareness of the events in Libya.
“Looking at humanitarian aid is an important piece of international development that is beginning to get more attention on campus,” Cohen said.
Reda said that the revolution in Libya began in Benghazi, where he was born and where his family still lives. Looking for ways to help, he began contacting nongovernmental organizations. In June, Portland-based Mercy Corps secured funding for a mental health program in Misrata, Libya, and contacted Reda, who had the appropriate credentials and language skills.
When the Mercy Corps asked if he would go, Reda said, “Absolutely.”
During Reda’s three-month stay in Misrata, he worked to heal the psychological wounds left by the war. His duties ranged from helping fighters deal with the emotional trauma of lost limbs to counseling the medical staff.
“The Libyan medical staff has a Superman mentality,” Reda said.“Many are affected themselves, but they don’t want to admit it to their patients or to their colleagues because of the stigma.”
Reda said that during a time of extreme crises, such as war, mental health issues are often overlooked. But many Libyans have seen and witnessed extreme trauma during the overthrow of Gaddafi’s regime.
For a newly emerging country to thrive, psychological as well as physical wounds must be addressed.
Reda paid special attention to children’s psychological needs. Many were showing signs of stress, including nightmares and fears of returning to school. Reda said part of the problem was their exposure to violent news on television.
“Everyone wanted to be part of the revolution because it’s history. The parents said, ‘We want our children to know everything that’s going on,’” Reda said. “But I told them the children can know everything that’s going on, but without the graphic pictures.”
Many children had already witnessed violence toward people they knew. Reda did not want children to be re-traumatized by viewing the graphic images on TV. To promote lasting mental health in Libya, Reda partnered with local society groups to advise them on the psychological effects of war and trauma.
Reda also explained his position on the American involvement in Libya.
American intervention in the Arab world has often come with unintended consequences. The Obama administration, mired in two wars and wary of further entanglements in the minefield of Middle East politics, took a “lead from behind” approach to the Libyan revolution. For the most part, Reda believes the United States struck the right balance.
“The United States did the right thing by enforcing the no-fly zone on March 17,” Reda said. “That prevented what could have been a massacre of about three quarters of a million people on March 19, when the forces of Gaddafi entered the city of Benghazi.
“Given the history between the Arab world and the United States. Many people questioned the reasons why the United States was supposed to take military action in Libya,” Reda continued. “I think Mr. Obama did not want to risk causing more damage to Arab and American relations.”
Reda also pointed out that the administration continued to support NATO, but he asked other countries, such as France and Qatar, to take the lead.
“The United States made it very clear that they were there to prevent the killing of civilians,” Reda said.
Reda remains optimistic about Libya’s future, but is aware of the difficulties that lie ahead. He hopes to return soon to help heal the nation’s psychological wounds.
Among his challenges, he said, will be finding ways to “reconcile the fighters who fought for and against Gaddafi, and making sure that a long psychological war does not drag on for years.”
The monthly Lunch & Learn series focuses on current events. The public is invited to bring its own lunch. The speaker generally speaks for 20 or 30 minutes, followed by a Q-and-A session.
“Humanitarian Aid in Libya: A Personal Account”
Friday, Nov. 18, noon
East Hall, room 109 Free and open to the public