a smiling woman stands with her harms crossed
Niveen Rizkalla

Israeli Palestinian trauma expert aids survivors of wildfires

Niveen Rizkalla was working with Syrian women at a refugee camp in Jordan, part of her postdoctoral work at UC Berkeley, when she came across a long line of refugees.

Wondering what all the excitement was about, she asked the refugees what was happening. They said they were waiting for a special doctor who listened to them and knew how to guide them in dealing with their trauma.

“And then it hit me that all this line was waiting for me,” said Rizkalla, a Palestinian Israeli who is an expert in how the stress of trauma affects groups ranging from prostitutes to the survivors of California wildfires.

Rizkalla finished her postdoctoral work last year at the Mack Center, part of the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare, and now is looking for a job or an organization that will support her research into trauma-related stress.

A native of Ramla in central Israel, Rizkalla studied at Tel Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University, receiving her Ph.D. in 2013. She then worked as the volunteer coordinator at the Haifa Rape Crisis Center and as director of the Haifa Ministry of Health’s mobile clinic, focusing on the psychological needs of prostitutes and LGBTQ people who were victims of sexual violence.

At the Mack Center, part of the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare, her work centered on the trauma experienced by Syrian refugees. Based in Jordan, she was unable to enter the refugee camps because she is an Israeli citizen, so she would let aid workers know she was available and then meet the refugees in restaurants or hotel lobbies. The stories she heard were harrowing, including those of young women sold to local men.

“They were forced to be married,” Rizkalla said. “A lot of rich men would come to the refugee camps when the women were very young, and after two weeks returned them to their parents. It was like returning damaged merchandise. That’s also prostitution in my perception.”

Rizkalla, who speaks Arabic, English, Hebrew and French, also helped refugees and aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos, though that counseling was done by Skype from Berkeley since she had an infant at home.

After wildfires swept through Sonoma County in October 2017, Rizkalla was part of the team with the Israeli disaster relief organization IsraAid that worked with survivors and the support staff who helped those survivors — including first responders, clergy, doctors, community workers and volunteers.

She’s very good at doubling down to have us get below the surface to what’s really going on.

“When the mind and soul are on fire, you need such workshops and need some space to take you away from the overwhelming feelings of everyday stress,” she said. “When the people have dealt with the tangible things, they have to deal with the mental things.”

Based at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, Rizkalla tended to the emotional and psychological needs of people who were focused on finding housing and filing insurance claims. From mindfulness workshops to yoga classes to group counseling sessions, she helped survivors and support staff work through the stress of dealing with recovery.

“Social workers, teachers, all of those people who provide services to the survivor population, they also need to have someone who supports them. People come to them with firsthand stories of trauma that are very overwhelming and they don’t know what to do with that,” she said. “Volunteers also need to have their own group, just to have a space for them to be held and to be supported.”

Rizkalla has continued that work more than a year later, leading a group of clergy members in discussions about their work with survivors and what they can still do to help. The group, which meets every couple of weeks, found itself thrust back onto the front lines this past November when smoke from the Butte County fires sent Sonoma survivors into renewed stages of post-traumatic stress.

Rabbi Stephanie Kramer of Shomrei Torah said Rizkalla has been crucial in leading the interfaith clergy group, which is supported by a $25,000 grant from the North Bay Wildfire Emergency Fund, a project of the S.F. and East Bay Federations. It was one of eight trauma recovery grants made available to fire-affected areas.

“She is an expert in trauma recovery and so she knows the stages before we even know that we got there, and she’s able to pinpoint it and call out what we’re going through,” Kramer said. “I think she’s very good at doubling down to have us get below the surface to what’s really going on.”

After Rizkalla’s academic position ended at UC Berkeley last August, leaving her without a salary, her research assistant created a GoFundMe page. But as of the new year, the campaign had raised just $3,907 of its $60,000 goal, and Rizkalla said she could lose her U.S. visa if she cannot find another employer as a sponsor to fund her global research into traumatized populations.

If she must leave the U.S., Rizkalla doesn’t know where she and her family would go. She met her husband, a Palestinian Jordanian, while working with the Syrian refugees. Since he is Jordanian and she is Israeli, it would be difficult for them to live in either Jordan or Israel. And she needs a place to continue her work.

“I love what I do, I will continue doing what I do,” she said. “I’m going to apply to universities. I’m going to apply everywhere.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.