Mateo Bernal, MAcOM 2009, developed his international focus long before studying at OCOM. As a policy advocate in the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas after college, Bernal worked to raise awareness of the economic and social issues facing poor communities in Mexico. He soon realized he “wanted something more concrete and more practical to give” to people he cares about. “Acupuncture seemed to answer all of the requirements. It was an effective medicine that didn’t require a lot of modern technology that was either expensive or difficult to obtain.”
Bernal’s father is from Peru, and his multicultural family spent much of Bernal’s childhood in Kentucky, so studying Chinese medicine in Portland was a new adventure for Bernal. At the time, acupuncture was not legally recognized in Kentucky, and even now Bernal estimates there are only 10 or 15 practitioners in his home state. Choosing OCOM was a bit of a lark—he’d never visited Portland and even did his admissions interviews from Mexico via Skype—but he found he “completely fell in love with the program.” One month before classes began, Bernal arrived in Portland for the first time.
A traveler at heart, Bernal was on a plane to Spain for a 1000-mile pilgrimage just nine hours after graduation from OCOM. He soon made another pilgrimage to the Lincoln Detox Center in the Bronx, the birthplace of the NADA protocol. Taking some time to volunteer at the detox center, Bernal “didn’t rush into starting a practice. I was checking things off my list.” Bernal’s path to his work in Lebanon, which inspired his 2011 book, Healing in Community: Finding Health and Freedom in a Palestinian Refugee Camp, started with an unsuccessful humanitarian mission to Egypt and Gaza. On that trip, Bernal met the woman who would be the founder and primary funder of a project to build a “healing and learning center” for the Palestinian refugees in Shatila Refugee Camp in Lebanon.
Shatila Refugee Camp has existed in Beirut for more than 60 years, since thousands of Palestinians fled Israel in 1948. The residents are thousands of Palestinian refugees living within 1.5 square kilometers, and they are entirely dependent on the support provided by the UNRWA. Bernal explains that refugees live on only the minimum food and supplies needed to sustain life, and the strained environment has resulted in difficult conditions: psychological trauma, diabetes and malnutrition, and a culture of violence. Observing these conditions, Bernal envisioned the healing and learning center to provide not just acupuncture treatment but health education, a refuge from daily struggles, and a place where folks would “literally leave their guns at the door.”
“We wanted to create a safe place for people to go, and to bring a redefined sense of healing to a community that has been neglected in so many ways . . . I really learned about my limitations, what I can do and really what anybody can do.”
Bernal’s vision took shape. People began stopping by the center just to chat and drink tea, even when no treatments were scheduled—a sign that the center had become a community hub rather than simply a clinic. The center staff began teaching Five-Point protocol to community members who emerged as leaders and healers. Though the project has ended and the clinic is now a women’s center, a handful of community leaders are still in Lebanon healing their neighbors with acupuncture.
With emotion in his voice, Bernal tells of his current work in Budapest—traveling to transient camps and providing treatments to the homeless inside a van. As he can hardly do his work through his shivering—it was negative 20 degrees during a recent outing—he is “amazed by how people survive here.” Reading Bernal’s book, which he created from the blog he kept during his time at Shatila, one cannot help but be moved by how the people he met there have touched him and shaped the innovative ways he uses his OCOM education. Asked what advice he would give to future acupuncturists and his fellow alumni, Bernal urges practitioners to “stay open to alternatives; there are a lot of different ways to work with Chinese medicine.”