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MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA Occupied Palestinian Territory

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-0061/El Baba

A girl looks at buildings destroyed during the December 2008/January 2009 Israeli military incursion into the Gaza Strip. UNICEF and partners have established family centres to provide educational and psychosocial support for affected families.

PARTNERING FOR A SAFE SPACE TO HEAL AND RECOVER

GAZA, Occupied Palestinian Territory, 9 December 2009 - For Rania al-Asi, a mother of five, the nine months since ‘Cast Lead’ have been a long road to recovery.  She spends many hours in psychosocial group sessions at a UNICEF-supported family centre in Al-Shati refugee camp in northern Gaza, drawing strength and sustenance from the other caregivers, children and adolescents who come regularly to the centre for help in rebuilding their lives.

Between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009, Israel launched a massive military operation on Gaza to try to stop militants from firing rockets into southern Israel. As a result, over 1,400 Palestinians were killed, including at least 350 children.  It also left around 5,000 injured out of whom more than 1,600 were children. In addition, 13 Israelis died.  The fighting devastated swathes of the tiny, densely-populated Gaza Strip, which is home to 1.5 million Palestinians, more than half of whom are children.

“It was a horrific experience,” Rania said, describing the 22-day military operation. “Every night we went to sleep fearing we would not see the morning. My children were terrified and crying all the time. One of my daughters was so frightened by the sound of explosions that she could not walk for two weeks.”

The family centre is the only one of its kind in Al-Shati refugee camp, which is home to over 170,000 people. More than 100 caregivers, mostly women, and over 400 children come to the centre regularly to receive psychosocial support, remedial education classes, recreational activities and other protection services. UNICEF has also supplied the centre with sports and music equipment, recreational supplies and a computer. Together with a broad range of partners, UNICEF is working to establish 20 such family centres across Gaza.

“These centres are working to meet protection needs, and to provide children and their caregivers with the emotional and psychological support they need to reconstruct their lives,” explained UNICEF Child Protection Officer Reem Tarazi. “Most importantly, after what they’ve lived through, these centres provide them with a setting where they can feel safe, and where their dignity is protected.”

Rania said that the psychosocial support she received at the centre had helped her manage her depression, and gave her the confidence that she lacked in her interactions with her community and her children. “After the war, my children were more violent, more difficult to control, and they lost interest in school,” Rania said. “I’ve learned valuable parenting skills here that help me in communicating with them and guiding them. I feel more equipped now as a parent than before.”

Hadeel, a 15-year-old who regularly comes to the centre, says she still struggles with the memories of the violence she witnessed, and that she often finds it difficult to concentrate in school. “I come here every day for English, Arabic and Math lessons,” she said. “I learn much better here than at school because it is quiet, and I can concentrate more.”  Beyond the academic exercises, the centre also offer opportunities for drawing, creative writing, and handicrafts - activities that were not possible in school because the materials were not available, she adds.

There are chronic shortages of basic goods including educational material in Gaza, which has been under an Israeli blockade banning all but essential humanitarian items since June 2007. Proper reconstruction of homes, schools, health facilities and fragile water and sanitation systems has been virtually impossible. The formal economy has collapsed, unemployment has climbed above 40 per cent, and 8 out of 10 families rely on food assistance. Farmland has also been destroyed and the blockade equally bans seeds and other agricultural products.

Facilitators at the centre say they have witnessed considerable change in children’s behaviour over the past months. Hekmat Al-Masri, who runs the creative writing programme, says progress is visible in children’s willingness to express themselves in writing. “Children are proud of what they write, and even prouder when they see it published,” Al-Masri said. “The whole process is helping them to recover.”

Services at the family centres are provided by partners including Save the Children Sweden, MAAN development center, TAMER Institute, Palestinian Youth Association for Leadership and Rights Activation, The Palestinian Centre for Democracy and Conflict Resolution and the Community Training Centre and Crisis Management Organization.