Helping children overcome their fears in Gaza
By Sajy Elmughanni
Juhor ad-Dik, Gaza, State of Palestine, 23 April, 2013 - In a quiet afternoon in Gaza, groups of children smiling shyly play together. In the background, houses pockmarked with bullet holes and some damaged buildings remind everyone of the eight-day escalation of violence in Gaza and Southern Israel last November.
The village of Juhor ad-Dik, which was overcome by pillars of smoke in November, now resonates with laughter as children and adolescents attend a “fun day” organized by UNICEF and partners to help them forget about their fears.
Nearly all villagers fled their homes as shelling and airstrikes pounded the area in November. “It was a journey of fear,” says Ahmad, 15, who fled with his family towards the centre of the Gaza Strip, where his parents thought they would be “a bit safer”.
Hadeel, 14, was among the villagers who could not flee. “We were 19 people hiding in one room, which shook at each blast,” the girl recalls. “Once I looked out of the window and I saw fire balls in the sky. I thought we were all going to die.”
The girl’s father called an ambulance, thinking the medical staff would come and evacuate his family. He was told that no one could come to their rescue, because the area was too dangerous.
Hadeel speaks of her anguish at learning that they would not be able to leave the small room, rocked by the constant sound of explosions. When she was able to go out at last, she says she was confronted with disturbing sights of injured people, dead bodies and destroyed buildings. These thoughts still linger months after the violence ended.
A rapid psychosocial assessment carried out by UNICEF and partner PCDCR revealed severe psychosocial distress among selected children living in the 35 hardest-hit areas of Gaza during the hostilities. The survey showed an increase in bedwetting and acute levels of stress, fear and anxiety.
To help address these symptoms, and help children resume hope and self-esteem, UNICEF and partners scaled up recreational activities in 15 Adolescent friendly spaces and 20 Family centres for 40,000 children across Gaza, with support from the Government of Japan.
“Attending structured activities in a safe space helps restore a much-needed sense of normalcy and routine to children and young people. It helps them cope with the events they witnessed, and increases their resilience,” says Reem Tarazi, UNICEF Adolescents and Youth Development officer.
In Juhor ad-Dik, children and adolescents were welcomed by clowns and participated to ball games, collective drawing and dancing.
Sitting next to her bullet riddled house, 65-year-old Warda says that she is happy to see the village come alive again. “In November we could not flee. Now my husband has decided to buy a tuk-tuk so we would be able to seek refuge elsewhere, should the violence resume. For the time being, we are happy to be alive and to see our grandchildren have fun and feel safe again”.