The cuddly toy taking away Israel’s trauma

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The cuddly toy taking away Israel’s trauma

Traumatised by October 7, Israeli children are being given a toy that has helped other young survivors of terror.

The Hibuki doll that is healing children's hearts and minds
The Hibuki doll that is healing children's hearts and minds

The children who survived the attacks of October 7 no longer play mums and dads in the playground – there are no cups of coffee or lemonade for the teddies. Instead, they speak in whispers. “Ssshh, we need to be quiet, there are terrorists outside.” Occasionally one will pop their head out of a makeshift door. “It’s okay, they’ve gone.”

Those who were not immediately affected are still not the same. At their schools, they are recreating the sounds of bombs and sirens. They are pretending to run to safe rooms and hide. This is the new norm.

“Children re-enact their experiences through play,” says Dr Flora Mor, who has been working with the evacuated and traumatised families for the humanitarian agency JDC. “People see children as adaptable – and think that because they don’t understand something they don’t experience it in the same way; they will be fine if the parent pretends things are fine.” But they are not. No one in Israel is fine.

Holding the Hibuki doll brings back the smiles

Flora knows trauma – Israel has been in enough wars – but she says nothing she has experienced has been “like what we are seeing now in terms of scale, tremendous pain and trauma”. And that, of course, impacts the children. “The children aren’t as good at vocalising how they feel, so there is a lot of separation anxiety, bedwetting and nightmares. They are very closed off or aggressive. They don’t know how to be themselves. It’s like some of them have forgotten how to play; they are so stressed.”

It was during the first Lebanon War that she, alongside the Tel Aviv University and the Israeli Ministry of Education, devised something to help them and their parents cope – a rather magical toy called the Hibuki doll. It looks like a giant dog with oversized arms and legs that can be strapped onto children with Velcro patches giving them a big hug – the name

The doll that is so much more than a toy


comes from the Israeli word for hug. The dog has a sad face – droopy eyes, turned-down lips – which is deliberate. One of the multifaceted ways the Hibuki helps children is that in trying to cheer it up, they make themselves laugh. Children immediately feel more responsible when they are looking after another creature.

And while the young children who have a Hibuki might struggle to communicate to their parents how they are feeling – particularly if they know that could make their also-traumatised parents sadder – by transferring their emotions onto the doll, they explain everything. The child talks to the doll and that way the parent can learn what the child is feeling.

Sometimes the child refuses to touch Hibuki or will hit it or throw it down violently – that too is an important sign that help is needed. And the parents are taught how to give that help.

The humanitarian agency JDC helping to restore children’s mental health

Hibuki is always introduced into a community via a member of Flora’s team who then passes on to teachers how to utilise the doll. The parents are also involved with their own round table group and that not only creates a way for them to understand how to help their child, but also becomes a form of therapy for them too. If a child comes to their parent and says the Hibuki had a nightmare the parent will know to say, ‘Please tell me what the dream was? And how do you think we can help Hibuki? Let’s think of way to make it better.’ It creates a dynamic that is helpful to the child but is also important in terms of their relationship to their parent.”

It is a complex process that takes money and time – so far, 2,000 of the dolls have been given out and the plan is to increase that to at least 10,000 with support provided by the United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA-UK) and the Jewish Federations of North American (JFNA).

Reut Matzrachi is a parent and nursery teacher in Ashkelon, which was originally evacuated after October 7, although most of its residents have returned. “I wish every young child in Israel could have a Hibuki,” she says. “The dolls become a like a friend to these children. A few weeks ago, a kid came in who was crying, he’d had a bad nightmare. The other children came up to him with a Hibuki and said: ‘Take Hibuki, he will calm you down.’

“The interesting thing is that after October 7 most of the parents thought their children were fine. But then they started hearing, ‘Hibuki misses his friends’ or ‘Hibuki misses his bed’ and they realised there was something else going on underneath.”

Hibuki doll arms open to children in Ukraine

Hibuki has become world-famous – he helped Japanese children after the tsunami and other children of war in Ukraine. But for now, his main work is in Israel.The trauma affecting Israel is ongoing; the war continues on several fronts. And Hibuki is fighting that war, in his own special way.

“The children will be able to move forwards with this help and we find it is also a tremendous strength emotionally for the parents,” says Flora.“Studies show that if a child has been exposed to trauma, the quicker they get help and the more help they get, from both their parents and professionals, the more they are likely to overcome it. They will get through this and Hibuki will help them.”

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