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Rebuilding after the reunion: what life can be like for hostages once they're free


Dozens of hostages who had been detained in Gaza for almost two months are now free. They're being reunited with loved ones, and they're getting the physical care that they need. But what happens to them once the celebrations and reunions are over and it's time to return to some semblance of a normal life? Well, we're going to talk about that now with Liz Cathcart. She's the executive director of Hostage U.S., a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting hostages and their families during and after captivity. Welcome.

LIZ CATHCART: Thank you so much for having me. I think this is a very important discussion to have and to be focusing on the human aspect of the kidnapping and the release.

CHANG: Absolutely. Before we get into this conversation, though, I just want to make it clear that you cannot comment on any of the specific cases that you're working on. Is that right?

CATHCART: That's right. And really appreciate that. And it's, you know, due to the confidential nature of our work and just making sure that we are here solely for the families and the support. So we don't comment on whether or not we support specific cases.

CHANG: Understandable. So to make it clear, your group works with these families and these hostages throughout, from captivity to release to recovery. And let me just ask you, as you've been watching these women and children getting released by Hamas, can you just tell me, what is the very first thing that they need before anything else can happen?

CATHCART: The first thing we always say is your physical health, because without the physical health checks and making sure that your physical health is, you know, up to par, you're not able to then take the next steps to recovery and reintegration.

CHANG: And I understand that malnutrition is something that you see a lot. And, you know, in reading about some of these people who have been released over the last few days, their family members are reporting that they have lost significant amounts of weight just in the seven weeks or so that they've been held hostage. Is that something you see quite often?

CATHCART: It is. Unfortunately, it's incredibly common for, you know, a multitude of reasons. And, you know, we manage cases of folks who are held for days, months, years and across the board, there are, you know, malnutrition issues, whether that's not getting enough food or not enough nutritious food, or because of the stress of being held, your body is unable to, you know, retain or keep down food. And that could be an issue as well.

CHANG: Right. Well, once the physical needs are largely taken care of and the immediate mundane tasks are attended to, I know that you focus on mental health. What kinds of challenges are common in situations like this, and what kind of support do organizations like yours try to provide?

CATHCART: Yeah, absolutely. In our experience at Hostage U.S., having supported so many of the Americans over the years, is that one of the most important skills that former captives can learn are resilience skills and coping skills to cope with what will be their new normal.

CHANG: So far, we've been talking mostly about the people who have been held hostage. But how does all of what affects them ripple out and affect the families of them? Like, what have you seen in the past?

CATHCART: It ripples out pretty significantly - right? - because as these families fight for two months trying to get their loved ones home, they're used to a constant level of stress. And now their loved ones are released, and it is such a happy and joyous moment. But then the families need to start to learn how to take care of themselves, how to step back, take a breather from a two-month marathon. And now their focus entirely shifts to making sure that their loved one is OK. And what I always, you know, encourage families to do when their loved one gets home is to focus on yourself, too, because it's so important that the families are mentally healthy, that they're fed, that they have energy, because if they don't, they're not going to be able to support their family member. They're not going to be able to support...

CHANG: Absolutely.

CATHCART: ...The captive who comes home.

CHANG: That saying about put on your oxygen mask first before you can put it on for others.

CATHCART: Absolutely.

CHANG: Finally, is there any individual or family that you tell people about, how they weathered this experience, to give people hope?

CATHCART: The best story of hope that we can give is that the majority - the vast majority of cases that we deal with - and with a family who is whole again, who recognizes that they went through an incredibly traumatic experience and they are built stronger and have learned coping mechanisms that they can apply to many different scenarios in their lives. And we feel very, very humbled and also proud to be part of those steps.

CHANG: Liz Cathcart is the executive director of Hostage U.S., an organization dedicated to supporting families and individuals experiencing detention. Thank you so much for joining us today.

CATHCART: Thank you. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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