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Play Activities Helping Children

© UNICEF-oPt/2005/Steve Sabella

by Sabine Dolan

HEBRON, 29 November 2005 - In Hebron’s Al Mutalabi School, boys aged between five and 14 are busy making paper masks and traditional ‘Tarbouch’ hats in the courtyard.

“I feel happy because I usually don’t have much opportunity to play and have fun. These things are unusual for me now,” says nine-year-old Fares Danah, who just started fourth grade in this curfew-prone West Bank city where he lives with his parents, three sisters and two brothers.  “When we go to play near my house in Qiryat Arba, there are people who throw stones at us. So now, I don’t go out to play much.”

This is the second time Fares participates in the school’s psycho-social activities designed to help children living in the frontlines.

The almost 2 million Palestinian children living in Gaza and the West Bank have seen it all.  Throughout the incessant conflict that has dragged on for more than five years, most have been exposed to continuous stress and violence such as loss of family members, arrests, shelling, house demolitions, closures, and curfews.  As a result, children have lacked the opportunity to play, exercise and interact with their peers.

The Israeli government’s decision to build the West Bank barrier in 2002 has created isolated enclaves dividing neighborhoods and communities.

“Our neighbour’s house was taken over by Israeli military forces on July 8th and turned into a military post. They all left the building last week. When it happened, I had a dream that my father was brought to jail.  Somebody opened the door violently and asked my mother for my father, they then occupied our house.” says 8 year old Roeya Khanfour from Jenin, whose father was jailed years ago.

Today, however, Roeya, along with 400 other children, participates in a recreational festival with psychosocial activities organized by UNICEF. 

“I often have dreams … When I see soldiers in our village, I sometimes have nightmares. But I feel good when I play, I forget everything!” exclaims Roeya.

© UNICEF-oPt/2005/Steve Sabella

In an attempt to help restore psychological well being for children and their families, UNICEF, in partnership with the Palestinian Authority, European Commission, the Austrian Development Agency and several NGOs, has developed psycho-social programs that reach out to the most vulnerable children.

Simple activities many of us take for granted - like drawing, singing and playing games - represent a rare opportunity for many Palestinian children. They are designed to boost their capacity to deal with violence, through games, expression, life skills and peer support.

Between January and October 2005, more than 35,000 children have participated in activities aimed at reinforcing children’s capacity to cope with violence and protect themselves. In that same timeframe, UNICEF has equipped 20,000 caregivers with skills on how to support children in distress and promote a harmonious family environment. UNICEF has been organizing psychosocial workshops for parents to sustain and strengthen the family unit--one of the most important components in the psycho-social recovery and well-being of children.  Each of these workshops, attended by 25 parents, costs just 43$.

Increasingly, psychosocial projects are reaching out to teenagers with a focus on peer support groups.

The general climate of violence has spread into schools and households where the strains and stresses of parents have been exacerbated by the declining economic situation.

“In light of the evolving situation on the ground, UNICEF’s psychosocial teams have gradually introduced the issues of domestic violence and abuse in their sessions with both children and parents,” says UNICEF Child Protection Officer, Anne Grandjean.  “Psychosocial teams have proven an appropriate and effective entry point to tackle violence in general” added Anne.

The psychosocial teams collaborate with women’s groups, youth associations to identify children or families in need of support.  If there is an emergency, the team members visit families directly in their homes or in the hospitals, speaking with those affected to see they need further support. UNICEF wants the children to feel they are not alone in their experience.  The teams may form groups with others affected, too, and facilitate the initial two-week program of special activities – expression through art projects, for instance. If necessary, the facilitators then identify those who need even further support so that the most vulnerable child can receive further help.

In January 2004, when UNICEF expanded its psychosocial outreach programme, emergency interventions by ministries and non-governmental organizations were often conducted in an uncoordinated, ad-hoc manner.  Within six months, UNICEF became the first agency to create a coordinated emergency response to the psychosocial needs of children.  UNICEF brought together in a same team the ministries of education, health and social affairs as well as non-governmental organizations and UN agencies to plan interventions that avoid overlap and develop a mechanism for early response.

A total of 12 psychosocial teams are currently operating in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt): seven in the West Bank and five in Gaza.  Each team is composed of 15 to 20 social workers and psychologists who have been selected with UNICEF support. UNICEF upgrades training in crisis intervention as needed.



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