A Safe Space to Heal and Recover
By Sajy Elmughanni
AL-SHATE’ REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza: For Rania al-Asi, a mother of five, the year since “Cast Lead” has been a long road to recovery. She spends many hours in psychosocial group sessions at a family centre in Al-Shate’ refugee camp in northern Gaza City, drawing strength and sustenance from the other caregivers, children and adolescents who come regularly to the centre for help in rebuilding their lives.
The family centre initiative is a UNICEF programme implemented by Save the Children Sweden in partnership with NGOs and community based organizations.
Between December 27 and 18 January, Israel launched a massive military operation on Gaza to try to stop militants from firing rockets into southern Israel. Over 1,400 Palestinians were killed, including 350 children, and over 5,000 injured, including more than 1,600 children. Thirteen Israelis were killed, including three civilians. The fighting devastated swathes of the tiny, densely-populated Gaza, which is home to 1.5 million Palestinians, more than half of them 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 of its kind in Al-Shate’ refugee camp, which is home to over 80,000 people living in an area of only one-half square kilometres. 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 established 20 such family centres across Gaza, with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency, European Commission, and Bank of Palestine. UNICEF is not only providing the centres with the overall technical expertise and capacity building but also is supplying it with sports, music and recreational equipments.
“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,” said 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 given her the confidence 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, said 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 offered opportunities for drawing, creative writing, and handicrafts -- activities that were not possible in school because the materials were not available, she said.
There are chronic shortages of basic goods including educational material in Gaza, which has been under an Israeli blockade banning all but essential humanitarian goods, since June 2007. Properly reconstructing 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 eight out of 10 families rely on food assistance. Farmland has 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 centre, TAMER Institute, Ard El-Insan, Palestinian Red Crescent Society, Sharek Youth Forum, The Palestinian Centre for Democracy and Conflict Resolution and the Community Training Centre and Crisis Management organization.