Prof. Haya Itzhaky was on an extended trip to Nepal to study the behavior of post-army Israeli backpackers when the deadly April 25, 2015 earthquake struck.
Itzhaky, chair of the PhD program at Bar-Ilan University’s School of Social Work in Ramat Gan, quickly initiated a study she hadn’t planned on conducting: how were Israeli tourists coping in the immediate aftermath of the devastating earthquake?
Recently published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, the study is the first of its kind to explore the experiences of tourists closely following a natural disaster.
Itzhaky conducted individual, in-depth interviews with 21 Israeli men and women ranging in age from 21 to 26, between one week and one month following the initial earthquake, during which time there were many aftershocks.
All of the interviewees discussed where they were when the 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck, how they felt, and how they responded. The disaster took the lives of more than 9,000 people and injured tens of thousands more. Many Israeli backpackers were caught by the quake in the Everest, Annapurna, Poonhill and Langtang regions, where destruction of villages and roads was extensive. Some had to be rescued by helicopter.
Analyzing the data later on with her Bar-Ilan colleague Shlomit Weiss-Dagan and US-based couple and family therapist Karni Kissil, Itzhaky found dominant themes emerged from participants’ descriptions of their experiences of the earthquake: emotional turmoil, quick recovery, springing into action, and connection to the army.
Turmoil and recovery
Survey participants said they had never been so terrified in their lives. They were afraid they might die and had trouble sleeping for many nights afterward. Some described a sense of helplessness as they attempted to cope with the magnitude of the event.
They noted, however, that they regained their emotional balance by being with other people in the same situation. They tapped into their resilience by reminding themselves that their homes weren’t destroyed and they had a place to go back to. Speaking with loved ones also helped them feel more centered.
And within a short time, the Israeli backpackers looked for ways to improve their situation and to help others.
“They understood that they must survive and they turned their fears into survival and took command of the situation,” said Itzhaky.
Some of the Israelis approached the Nepalese and built a camp together for survivors. They helped bury the dead according to local rituals, set up a makeshift “situation room,” organized a search team to locate missing Israeli backpackers and assisted travelers from other nationalities after they were rescued by Israeli helicopters. An Israeli trained as a medic helped the injured.
In addition, a group of Israelis visited embassies in the capital, Katmandu, to report on those they found and where to look for others.
Connection to the army
Participants described to Itzhaky how the experience of the earthquake brought back memories from their time in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
For some, this helped them plan concrete steps they could take to solve problems in their current situation. For others, remembering what they went through in the army gave them a sense of mastery and competence, realizing that they managed to cope with difficult situations in the past.
Some, however, found that comparing their current situation to their experiences in the army was unhelpful because they perceived the current situation as much worse and very different, and therefore couldn’t rely on their previous experience to regain a sense of control.
But there were some commonalities.
“I found leaders in every one of the Israelis that I met,” said Itzhaky. “There were no ego trips among them. They all felt a sense of belonging to the community, a sense of togetherness. The group cohesion was a very protective factor which helped them cope. And knowing that Israel would send humanitarian assistance in their time of need comforted them and allowed them to feel that they wouldn’t be alone.”
She noted a feeling of pride in being Israeli and part of a group, and a feeling of generous spirit, kindness, generosity toward one another, and unity for the purpose of survival. “In Israeli culture, people unite in difficult times, and this was very evident in Nepal,” Itzhaky said.
She and her team are currently following up with the group in an effort to examine their emotional state a year-and-a-half after the quake.