Through play, UNICEF helps restore a semblance of normalcy to Gaza’s children
Gaza, August 2010 - Even though Israel’s 23-day-offensive in Gaza took place over 18 months ago, fear still echoes through the voices of the children of Ezbet Abed Rabbo, a tiny community north of Gaza, near the border with Israel.
Nine-year-old Rawan Saleh grows quiet and her voice trembles.“They pushed us out of our houses,” she remembers. “We were in the house five days when they announced over loudspeakers that we had to leave. And they took my father.”
“This area was all built up, but now it’s a wasteland – its natural for them to be afraid,” says Psychosocial Team Leader, Shaima Talib.“Bring up anything about the war and the kids change – they start to remember the shooting, the shelling, the death. That’s why we try to bring them back to a life of play and ordinary things.”
Talib’s team is one of 16 Psychosocial Support Teams operating in Gaza and the West Bank with support from UNICEF and funds from the European Commission and the Canadian International Development Agency. Services are implemented by the Palestinian Center for Democracy and Conflict Resolution (PCDCR). The teams are composed of up to 25 community-based psychologists, educators and legal counselors who are trained to provide psychosocial support to children and caregivers. The programme also allows field workers to detect serious cases of trauma and refer these children to professionals who can provide more specialised care and services. In 2009, the programme reached over 37,000 children and 14,000 caregivers with direct support, and trained over 800 psychosocial support professionals.
On a recent Thursday morning, 14 children, seven girls and seven boys played basketball, handball and other games.The activities are held in an open space provided by a resident of Ezbet Abed Rabbo whose home was destroyed during ‘Cast Lead’. He has managed to rebuild a few rooms from scrap bits of metal and concrete, but the remaining area is reserved for the neighborhood children. Such community participation is built in to the project, under way since last year, as a way to build resilience at the community level.
“The children have remarkable resilience and an immense thirst for playing and learning.” says UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Mioh Nemoto. “It has become especially important, after ‘Cast Lead’, to try to bring semblances of childhood back into their lives.”
“We play and we benefit,” says 10-year-old Hamada Muheisen. His own memories of the war are equally stark. “We would sit close to each other and hold each other close,” he recalls gravely. “I was afraid from the war, from the shooting,” he explains. “I wanted to stay close to my mother. My brother and sister were very afraid, and my sister wouldn’t even go to the bathroom by herself.”
Nine-year-old Rawan recalls days in her house under fire without food or water. An uncle who braved the shooting to bring the family milk for its babies was ultimately shot and killed, she says.
Approximately 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the operation, including 350 children. Four Israeli civilians and 10 soldiers were killed in combat or as a result of rocket and mortar fire.
The effects of the war have been prolonged, aid workers say, by an Israeli blockade on Gaza that has prevented the import of many basic goods and raw material that is needed for reconstructing homes and vital infrastructure. Despite the recent easing of entry of goods into Gaza, few houses have been rebuilt, as Gaza lacks the cement and steel needed to reconstruct on a wide scale. According to the United Nations Development Programme, only 25 per cent of the damaged incurred during “Cast Lead” was repaired in the following year, much of it by local recycling of rubble and debris.
Caught in the middle, the needs of the children of Ezbet Abed Rabbo are at once complex and very basic.