Ashira Ramadan,1 37, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, is an energetic multimedia consultant with extensive experience in journalism. She has worked in producing, reporting, investigating, and filming for various news outlets and programs. As a human rights researcher and political activist, she has undergone harassment and intimidation, including detention. Ashira has been detained and interrogated, as well as brutally beaten, on several occasions by Israeli soldiers. She has also been assaulted by Palestinian security forces.
From a Traumatized Teen to a Trauma Healer and Yogi: Ashira Ramadan’s Story
Already at the age of 16, Ashira had been hit by wooden sticks, slapped, and arrested during a peaceful musical protest in 2001 (against the closure of the Orient House) in Jerusalem. Standing there with her mother, she was detained for a day and then placed under house arrest. She has described this experience thus:
I was carried by men in blue to the jeep where I was slapped around, humiliated by a group of young Israeli soldiers who cursed my very own existence, all the way to the Russian Compound Detention Centre in Jerusalem. It is a name that brings shivers down my spine. I was questioned and then released only after signing a paper to say that no Israeli soldier had hurt me and that my injuries were incurred when I had fallen down on the way to the protest. The police also ordered me to stay away from Jerusalem for 15 days. Jerusalem, where I live, the place people love and die for.
That was my first encounter with justice, journalism, idealism and reality.2
“This had a great impact on me,” she now reflects. “There wasn’t much support in understanding trauma, or any support for that matter. I felt that the ripples of that arrest shaped who I became.”
It is on that day that I chose my path and career. I could not tolerate the silence and the camera flashes in my face. I was being exposed as vulnerable and weak in front of everyone around me. I decided I wanted to be the journalist that lends out a hand to pull the 16-year-old girl off the ground rather than takes photographs of her being led away.
Throughout the years, Ashira made a name for herself as a media consultant. She has strong networks in the field, ample experience in regional research, and is also a technical specialist in social media. She was hired by internationally renowned organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Despite her emerging career, however, the dreadful experiences that Ashira stood witness to in her line of work had a severe impact on her physical and mental health. As a reporter and activist, she took part in demonstrations where several people ended up being detained—herself included. Her second detention was due to her journalistic radio work in Palestine for a South African radio station, at about age 25. She recalls:
I was arrested for conducting interviews with wanted Palestinian militants. I realized that what I was taught in university about freedom of expression, and the public right to information exists, but the laws of war were completely different.
There were no laws in my dark, gloomy cell in the Russian Compound [al-Moskobiyya]. It was only then that I realized what freedom is. In the solitude of my cell, everything was clear: I had no control over my life, no control over my food and no control over anything. Every time my prison guard came to take me into interrogation, and put what seemed to be a ski mask on my face, and handcuffed me I was terrified. I have always been afraid of the dark ever since I was a child, but there is nothing darker than that mask. There is nothing darker than being driven to the unknown. But what gave me strength to hold on was remembering how my mother hugged me as I was being dragged into the station. I watched her grabbing hold of the prison gates, shaking them and screaming for me to be strong.
Until today, I am not sure who to be angry with over what happened. I was released with no charges after being found innocent of all charges, but who was to blame?3
The third arrest followed soon thereafter, also for her journalistic work. In total, she has been in Israeli prisons three times: “Each of these times was horrendous for me.” She speaks of the profound isolation that culminated from these experiences. She yearned for a safe space in which to share her pain, without feeling pressured, scared, or shut down.
In 2016, Ashira was violently grabbed and punched in the neck by Israeli soldiers during a protest in Nabi Saleh that she was covering as a reporter. “This injury led to paralysis [of the neck] . . . The doctors told me there is no hope . . . that I would remain paralyzed for life.” She describes this injury as “a nightmare. It was the worst thing that could have happened to me.”
This injury, together with the horrid shocks Ashira witnessed in the country for over 20 years, has taken her on a new path of discovery. Ultimately, she had to find another way to recover, and decided to give holistic/alternative medicine a try. “That was the only option,” she notes. Living with buried trauma and PTSD can lead to self-defeating and compulsive behavior patterns, including addiction and exacerbated feelings of shame or guilt. Instead of treating surface-level symptoms by way of traditional recovery, holistic treatment recognizes that the mind, body, and spirit all affect one another. Group therapy, as well as one-on-one sessions, gives the patient the space to explore all angles toward healing.
Holistic medicine gave Ashira a way out of her paralysis, she declares. “Holistic [medicine] healed me. It gave me power to know that I have control over my life.” This path took Ashira to India and Peru, which is where she participated in group as well as one-on-one therapy toward healing. She also trained to teach Kundalini yoga.
Path to Healing and Kundalini Yoga
The practice of Kundalini (from the Sanskrit) means “coiled energy.” It focuses on breath and asana (physical postures), while combining meditation and movement with sound (such as mantras, chants, and songs). The purpose of the practice is to let the energy channels go up the spine through the crown of the head and open the way for recovery.
“We carry within our bodies memories of trauma. Living in constant conflict turns to disease,” Ashira shares. “To heal it, you have to have tools that are in the body.” It is easier, she adds, to build resilience rather than resist trauma; this is what she learned from Kundalini yoga.
The person that Ashira has become speaks volumes about what is possible. Previously an angry person who was told her paralysis was untreatable, she had heard “all these theories about my brain, me, and how I was. I was told that I had ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] from childhood, but I am now able to sit for 10 hours in meditation . . . All these labels are put on us, and they make a major impression on how we see ourselves.”
After she was able to heal herself, Ashira decided that a traumatic event a person undergoes “should not be the thing that controls the rest of the future.” Attesting to the effects of yoga, which she says changed her life, Ashira has made it her mission to share what she learned with others. She is now a Kundalini yoga teacher. She leads healing sessions in Palestine for adults and children, with a focus on children who have been incarcerated in Israeli prisons.
Former Child Prisoners
The first place Ashira started her teaching journey was in Nabi Saleh, a small village in the Ramallah governorate in the West Bank that gained attention during the protests of 2017, especially after the arrest of 16-year-old Ahed Tamimi, who slapped an Israeli soldier in the face. Nabi Saleh has a special place in Ashira’s heart; it was where she had been severely injured, and she knew the children there.
In 2019, Ashira was able to connect with 10 recently released young Palestinian women (including Tamimi) who had been incarcerated in Israeli prisons as children. Having herself been imprisoned in the past, Ashira had a good understanding of the level of trauma these children were exposed to, and what they may be going through after their release. She thus decided to provide them with sessions of healing, fun, and love, “mixed with a dose of yoga and horse riding.”
“With women prisoners, I saw that there is a dire need for talking . . . for finding a safe space through which to let out emotions,” Ashira shares. “There is often a lot of pressure following an arrest. The families, themselves anxious, do not help, let alone the Israeli orders on just-released prisoners that restrict them from communicating, which leads to further isolation.”
“When someone is imprisoned,” Ashira continues, “their freedom is taken away. This experience takes away any sense of control or determination.”
Continuous Trauma among Palestinians
The subject of mental health and recovery from trauma, perhaps to the surprise of some, often gets dismissed among Palestinians. Those observing the reality of living under occupation might find that self-care must be a priority, yet those who are “in it” are usually too busy coping and adapting. One reason why Palestinians may not give the subject of trauma much attention is because it is the norm. The internationally acclaimed author and renowned Hungarian Canadian physician and childhood development and trauma expert Dr. Gabor Maté expressed this in an interview shared with 2.5 million followers in May 2021, when he quoted Ashira: “She says, ‘We don’t have posttraumatic stress disorder here [in Palestine,] because the trauma is never post. The trauma is daily.’”
In referring to the Palestinian situation, Dr. Maté shared that he had “visited the occupied territories during the First Intifada . . . I cried every day for two weeks at what I saw. The brutality of the occupation, the petty harassment . . . The murderousness of it . . . the burning/cutting down of Palestinian olive groves, the denial of water rights, the humiliations . . . And this went on. And it’s much worse now than it was then.”
Dr. Maté then mentioned Ashira, who “runs a program for Palestinian children who spent time in Israeli jails. 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds are jailed for months or years . . . Sometimes they can’t see their families for months. And she runs a program for them. You know what she does? She meditates with them. She does Sufi dervish dancing with them—whirling and dancing—to bring them out of their stress state.”
From Trauma to Hope
Ashira made it her focus to provide traumatized children and youth with basic life skills, so that they can discover their own internal power. She guides them “not to count on others, but to trace that power within. I focus on positive affirmations so that the kids know they are able.”
She gives the example of a young woman who aspired to get an A grade in high school. Through positive affirmations, her wish manifested and “changed her life.” Another girl, who was religious, had been too harsh on herself, but through guided meditation, she managed to stop beating herself up and found her space to pray in a more forgiving manner. “How we talk to ourselves is crucial,” Ashira explains. “Whatever the tongue utters instills power.”
“I’m not a social worker or doctor,” Ashira admits, “but I use tools to remove trauma through the body. Trauma sticks to the bones. For example, mothers of prisoners usually suffer from lung problems; such as asthma, breathing problems, and even breast cancer . . . In Kundalini, we find that each emotion has its place in the body.”
Working with former child prisoners (as well as their mothers) from the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Ashira has been finding new ways to help individuals achieve mental and physical well-being. She now runs different programs in various areas, including Bedouin communities, which “combine yoga, active meditation, and art therapy techniques aimed at finding the inner peace that would reflect in their home and on their societies as a whole.” She finds that these sessions, no matter how short, are beneficial for the individuals involved. “It gives them authority over their bodies, destiny, and their feeling of hope.”
“We cannot afford being weak,” she concludes, “because it would break those kids if our spirits were to break. The communal strength gives them resilience. Had we not had this [if we were separated as a society], we [as a people] would have suffered much more.”