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UNICEF helps Gaza’s children overcome traumatic experiences

© @UNICEF-oPt/2012/El Baba

Gaza, occupied Palestinian territory, 23 March 2012 - Mohammed Abu Riyala, a 14 year old boy living in Gaza City’s Beach Camp, used to love the ocean. Coming from a fisherman’s family, going out at sea on his father’s boat together with his brothers was not only natural for him, but also something he looked forward to after finishing his studies.

That all changed in January this year.

It was a cold, windy winter evening in which Mohammed and his 22-year-old brother, Adham, were meant to go on a relatively short fishing trip for sardines with their little boat powered by a modest ten horsepower engine. Mohammed’s father had long lost his professionally equipped fishing trawler that used to employ 12 fishermen; he says it was confiscated by Israeli naval forces at sea and returned only years later in tatters.

Just as he was inheriting his father’s vocation, Mohammed had also to inherit the troubled waters that come with Gaza’s fishing industry. Since Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza in 2007, citing security reasons, Israeli military measures have prevented fishermen from accessing 85 per cent of Gaza’s fishing waters, causing the fishing industry to collapse*.

On the evening of 12 January, Mohammed and his brother had their nets brimming sardines suddenly carried away by the wind. “We followed the nets for a while, within the fishing limits, when all of a sudden Israeli military boats appeared and started shooting at us”, Mohammed recalls. “Other fishermen around us had more powerful engines so they fled, but with our small engine there was nowhere we could go. Soon we were surrounded by Israeli forces. It felt strange because it was the first time I ever saw Israelis in my life.”

What followed has remained engraved in Mohammed’s memory. “Israeli Forces told us to turn off our engine and remove all of our clothes,” Mohammed says. “I was embarrassed, and it was very cold. They asked my brother to jump into the sea, which he did, and then ordered him to climb onto their patrol boat on a boat ladder. When they asked me to do the same, my brother protested that I was too young to be made to jump into the freezing sea and that I could drown, so they sent a small boat to pick me up.”

© @UNICEF-oPt/2012/El Baba

Once on the patrol boat, the two brothers were blindfolded, their hands bound with plastic handcuffs. Mohammed could feel his wet brother next to him as they both shivered in the chilly wind. It took about an hour until they reached a shore and were led into a building, still blindfolded, in what they assume was the city of Ashdod in Israel.

“At one point I tried raising my blindfold and someone hit me on my face,” Mohammed recalls. “Shortly afterwards someone came to administer first aid to me and offered me food and drink, but I refused. I did not know what these soldiers wanted, I was very scared.”

Mohammed is reluctant to speak about what happened. He will only say that he was interrogated at length by Israeli forces even though he did not have anything to tell. He was very worried that his family, not seeing him come back, might think he and his brother had died at sea. After several long hours, the brothers were blindfolded again and driven to an unknown place.

“When I opened my eyes, it was pitch dark. I could dimly see we were in some kind of a wasteland. My brother and I found some praying mats and tried to tuck ourselves underneath to fight the cold”, Mohammed says. The following morning, they came across some Bedouins and realized they had been left in the north of the Gaza Strip. The Bedouins lent them a mobile phone so they could call their parents.

Back in the family home, Mohammed’s parents were relieved to learn their sons were alive. However they were concerned. “The moment I saw my sons again, they were shivering, clearly disoriented and afraid, especially young Mohammed”, says his father, adding that “these are not things that children should be submitted to”.
The effects of that night were longer lasting than the cold that was gripping young Mohammed. For the next two weeks, he was absent-minded and unable to attend school, having nightmares and spending long periods on his own.

Luckily, he would not have to face this alone. On the same day he returned home, an emergency team of the Palestinian Centre for Democracy and Conflict Resolution (PCDCR) visited him to assess the kind of intervention which would be appropriate for the teenager.

Funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), and with the support of UNICEF, PCDCR provides psychosocial support to children in the Gaza Strip affected by traumatic events. It support teams, made up of psychologists, educators and legal counsellors, work in 21 family centres and 80 communities. The teams first assess and identify children in need of psychosocial care, and develop counselling session plans to cater for their needs. They are trained to provide support to children and caregivers in times of distress, allowing them to detect cases of trauma early on and refer them to professionals for specialised care and services. PCDCR’s partnership with UNICEF also enables the organization to progressively streamline referral services across the costal enclave.

“It was clear from the beginning that Mohammed was strongly disturbed by the experience and needed support,” says PCDR’s psychologist Amran Dawood, who has been visiting the child since January. “In the first days after the incident, Mohammed was very afraid; he would withdraw to himself and be frightened by noises.”

Dawood and the centre’s team tailored an individual psychosocial response plan for Mohammed together with his school and family. “Two months later, Mohammed’s case is far from over as there is more follow-up work to be done”, Dawood says. “However we are optimistic, he is already doing well at school again.”

Mohammed is adamant he will not return out at sea – he is too afraid to go on a boat again. His hopes of becoming a fisherman may be dashed, but the psychological support helped him find an alternative: the boy would now like to become an Arabic teacher and, to that end, is taking school seriously.

For his family, their last source of livelihood is gone with the boat. With little chances of getting it back anytime soon, they are forced into even more poverty. “But the most important thing for us is that Mohammed is OK, and for this we are grateful”, his father says.




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