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Unsung heroes, untold stories: How will we react?

Down the line, when we see cases of self-harm, addiction, crippling depression and even suicide, the coronavirus will not be blamed, but it will be the real culprit
Illustrative. Depression. (iStock)
Illustrative. Depression. (iStock)

Over 30 years of crisis work has taught me that there is a very wide range of how human beings react to disaster, difficulties and trauma.

One of those reactions brings tears to my eyes. It is the reaction of empathy and generosity.

At the Tel Aviv Sexual Assault Crisis Center, 150 volunteers are supporting survivors of sexual violence on our three hotlines (local for women, national for men, and national for religious men) 24/7 throughout this outbreak. The dramatic rise in calls during quarantine and the growing complexities of sexual violence survivors’ crisis situations are extracting a real emotional toll. Yet, for the hours of their shifts, these devoted volunteers put aside their own stresses and challenges so they can give.

I am in awe of their kindness.

Like so many non-profits right now, The Tel Aviv Sexual Assault Crisis Center is facing extreme budgetary issues due to our self-generating ventures being devastated and our government funding threatened to be cut significantly. We have had to put about a third of our staff on furlough at the worst possible time. With so many public/private psychological services providers shuttered, our center has become a virtual mental health ER, with our remaining staff on constant overdrive trying to fill the professional gaps, overworking themselves in the extreme so that vulnerable survivors’ needs are met.

I am in humbled by their commitment.

We have had to reach out, requesting aid from our community to help us weather this storm. Supporters have been coming out of the woodwork to assist by donating time and resources, seeking a way that they can be there for others in need.

I am inspired by their open-handedness.

These are the unsung heroes of this crisis. These and the millions of people like them world-wide who make the conscious choice not to turn away while someone else is suffering.

Sadly, there is another reaction to this situation that brings tears to my eyes for an entirely different reason. It is the reaction of cruelty and exploitation.

Last week, Israel’s police force reported a 41 percent rise in cases of sexual violence within the home during the coronavirus quarantine. This staggering statistic is playing out in a very real manner on our crisis hotlines with waves of callers suffering heartbreaking abuse resulting from or amplified by the quarantine situation — such as our recent 16-year-old late-night caller, whispering that she is terrified at being unable to “escape” her stepfather. She had never disclosed being sexually abused, so her dormitory boarding school did not consider her at-risk when deciding to send her home. Home is supposed to mean safety, but for that girl and thousands like her, it is torture being trapped in close quarters with a perpetrator. Horrifyingly, like so many abusers, he is channeling his stress by becoming even more aggressively violent while assaulting her. She fears that he will kill her.

I am overwhelmed thinking about the terror that she is enduring.

We have frantic parents calling in the wake of online pedophiles manipulating children’s heavy screen-time usage to target youth. Preying on children’s innocence by persuading them to send naked pictures to be “examined” for Corona by a “medical professional.”

I am dazed by the pain these parents and children are experiencing.

A university student contacted the Men’s hotline. He had been working nights to put himself through school, but lost his job due to coronavirus restrictions and could no longer meet his rent. About to find himself homeless and with nowhere else to turn, he asked his mother if he could temporarily return to his childhood home. Stepping into the house that he had avoided since being drafted into the army, he was suddenly triggered by a wave of memories related to the sadistic abuse that his brother had put him through. When his mother asked him why he suddenly was having trouble breathing, he disclosed what his brother had done, only to discover that his mother had been aware of the molestation while it was happening. Rather than asking any form of forgiveness, she screamed at him, blaming him for the abuse and yelling that his older brother has a wife and children now, so bringing up the past would be “disgustingly selfish.” The student ran from the house, knowing that he was about to find himself without a roof over his head. The Men’s hotline coordinator was able to arrange temporary housing and virtual counseling for him. Yet, he feels as if he is once again falling into a dark space and has suddenly found himself “orphaned” during a time when he desperately needs support.

I feel bruised at the emotional battering that he is suffering.

These are the untold stories of this pandemic.

They are the casualties that will be largely overlooked when we summarize the costs of Corona. In a few years’ time, if proper treatment is not made available to them, these survivors are highly likely to spiral downward into complex post-trauma. When we question why they have employed unhealthy coping mechanisms such as self-harm or addiction, why they dropped out of university as they could not manage to get out of bed from crippling depression or tragically, why they committed suicide, the coronavirus will not be the reason that pops up.

Tragically, unrecognized victims of this virus will not be limited to the field of sexual violence treatment. Corona will have extreme, long-term and “hidden” reverberations for all of Israeli society along with the rest of the world. While it may not seem immediately obvious as we grapple with the medical and economic costs of this virus, the “third sector” will be coping with the ripple effects of this period for many years to come. Whether it is impact of increased domestic violence or decreased programming for special needs due to funding cuts, the results can be potentially devastating.

How will we react? How will the key decision-makers in our society respond? There are hard decisions being made right now to fight this outbreak. There are going to be hard decisions to be made in the days to come regarding how our country’s limited resources will be allocated in order to bounce back from Corona.

It is an immensely troubling sign that in this critical time of need, this administration is choosing to allocate NIS 228 million (some $65 million) annually towards salaries for unnecessary new government minister positions — 36 ministers and 16 deputy ministers. Those funds are crucial for helping Israel’s less fortunate in the difficult days to come. This over-inflated cabinet seems unashamed to burn through tax dollars that could instead be used to help desperate business owners, aid the many non-profits providing essential services that face closure or provide a better social safety net, instead of allowing this corrupt use of public funds towards personal gain.

I call upon our community members and our leaders to think strategically so that the most vulnerable and often hidden victims of this period do not get forgotten as we attempt to collectively heal.

I beg you to react with compassion, with generosity and with foresight.

About the Author
Miriam Schler is the executive director of the Tel Aviv Sexual Assault Crisis Center. If you need support please contact us. You are not alone! Women’s Hotline: 1202 • Men’s National Hotline: 1203 • National Hotline for Religious Men: 02-5328000
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