Survivors of Yesterday, Healers of Tomorrow

Dr. Nada Dhaif, the founder of the Bahrain Rehabilitation & Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO), has transformed the traumatic experience of torture in a Bahrani prison into a movement that empowers victims of trauma to heal one another. 

Dr. Nada Dhaif Founder of BRAVO

Manama, Bahrain

Photo credit: Human Rights Foundation

Dr. Nada Dhaif is an oral surgeon by training and grew up in a well-to-do family in Manama, Bahrain’s capital. Although Dr. Dhaif recalled volunteering routinely and donating to charity during her upbringing, she was not actively involved in political or social issues as an adult. This changed during the Arab Spring that ignited protests in Manama in 2011. Uprisings in Bahrain lasted about a month from February to March in response to widespread corruption, unemployment, media censorship, and a lack of political and religious rights. 

When Dr. Dhaif arrived in the center of the action in Manama’s Pearl Roundabout to deliver blankets and food for protesters, she instantly felt the responsibility to do more. A trained medical professional, Dr. Dhaif started treating injured protestors shot by rubber bullets or experiencing side effects of tear gas.

Dr. Dhaif recalled how many injured protestors needed medical attention in the following weeks but were denied care by the main hospitals, which had been taken over by the Ministry of the Interior. She decided to help establish a medical tent on-site in Pearl Roundabout, collecting the necessary supplies to treat the injured working alongside hundreds of volunteers, including doctors from all specialties.  

They delivered medical care on-site for the entire month of protests until Saudi-Emirati troops were dispatched and quashed the demonstrations. Dr. Dhaif said, “The protests ended on Thursday. On Friday, March 19, 2011, I was arrested, and I was the first female detainee.” 50 medical volunteers in the medical tent were also arrested. Although many of her fellow doctors were released after a few days, Dr. Dhaif spent two months in prison and 22 days in solitary confinement while she waited for her day in court. She was subjected to torture and forced to sign a false confession of hatred of the regime, possessing weapons, and forming terrorist cells.  

Dr. Dhaif recalled, “I was a butterfly. But after my release, I became a dragon.” After months of being held without charges, Dr. Dhaif was released and received her day in Bahrain’s military court alongside 50 other colleagues from the medical tent. They were all sentenced to 15 years in jail in a ruling internationally known as the Doctors of Bahrain. While she watched her lawyer and family literally fall to their knees upon hearing the sentence, Dr. Dhaif said, “Not a single tear dropped from my eye. I knew that I was not sorry for what happened or what I sacrificed and that I would fight back. I promised that I would never go back to that prison, not even for an hour.”  

All-women protest in Budaiya, Bahrain in January 2012. Photo by REUTERS/ Mamad l Mohammed

That same day, Dr. Dhaif accepted every interview request from major media outlets across the world. The stories ignited a movement; within 72 hours, medics, human rights organizations, and political figures including Barack Obama condemned these sentences. The international community mobilized and successfully petitioned the Bahraini government to suspend the sentences for these doctors. While the fear of returning to jail diminished, Dr. Dhaif was still reeling from her trauma and desperately needed help to overcome severe PTSD. Yet not a single facility or center existed to provide such help in Bahrain or any neighboring countries. 

In 2012, Dr. Dhaif founded Bahrain Rehabilitation and Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO) which is the first organization locally established to speak out against torture and rehabilitate victims back into society. BRAVO’s multidisciplinary approach aims to assist victims of trauma in all aspects of their recovery, providing psychological, mental, social, and legal counsel. The organization’s team comprises lawyers, social workers, psychologists, and social workers who collectively are changing the system of rehabilitation in Bahrain and transforming victims of violence and trauma into healers. BRAVO’s approach to rehabilitation combines western and eastern psychological healing techniques ranging from cognitive behavioral therapy to Ayurveda.

Transforming the Stigma

Dr. Dhaif founded BRAVO to bridge a much-needed gap in mental healthcare in Bahrain. In fact, it continues to be the only organization in the country fully dedicated to treating trauma today. But soon after founding BRAVO, Dr. Dhaif realized the need to address an entrenched societal stigma attached to torture, mental illness, and trauma.

BRAVO’s received testimonies that over half of male political detainees in Bahrain had been subjected to sexual violence during their imprisonment. When BRAVO offered resources to address this issue, not a single person showed up. Dr. Dhaif explained that admitting one experienced torture, especially of a sexual nature, results in social and economic ostracization. “It’s seen as shameful to ask for help,” Dr. Dhaif said. 

BRAVO discovered that men specifically are much less likely to ask for psychological help, which studies have shown is the case around the world. To reach this population, BRAVO is creative. They offer trauma-informed healing techniques and strategies to those in a victim’s life, teaching their partners, children, and friends the proper techniques and coping mechanisms to help their loved one healthily deal with their trauma.  

Dr. Dhaif is successfully “scaling deep,” changing dominant mindsets about trauma and seeking professional help. BRAVO brings an innovative and highly personal approach – they teach victims to be healing ambassadors and take on leadership positions in their communities to encourage others to seek help. Because of their shared experiences of trauma, healing ambassadors have both high retention rates and referrals. Dr. Dhaif said, “It’s much easier to talk to people who are from the same community and understand the dynamics. The approach is much more intimate when someone is from the same background and exposed to the same circumstances.” Since BRAVO addresses not only victims of torture and trauma but also their families and friends, their impact reaches entire communities. Her strategies are working–the number of those seeking treatment grows every year.  

After receiving treatment from BRAVO, follow-up statistics show that their treatment approach has empowered people to resume their lives and re-engage with society. In fact, Dr. Dhaif said that more than 90% went back to school or work and have successfully reintegrated into their communities.  

Due to the unstable political environment in Bahrain, establishing BRAVO was risky and, to this day, is not recognized by the Bahraini government. However, it has still managed to create a shift in how the country addresses mental health. 11 years later, BRAVO’s network has reached over 100,000 beneficiaries, providing them with invaluable healing tools. The evidence of her impact can be seen in the increase of clients and their referrals in addition to the rise in the numbers of psychiatrists in Bahrain from one per 200,000 people in 2011 to one per 80,000 today.  

Additionally, Dr. Dhaif said, “The number of similar rehabilitation facilities and clinics has been increasing and mushrooming over recent years.” Since the pandemic, BRAVO has moved many of its resources and sessions online which has furthered its reach with thousands of views coming from the region and around the world.  

Dr. Dhaif reflected, “Those who have received treatment have started the grassroots movement. The victims of yesterday have become the healers of today and tomorrow.” 

By Audrey Lodes