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Safe Play Areas in Rafah: A Fun and Safe Haven for Children

© UNICEF-OPT/2004/Sabella
A young boy amid the ruble of what used to be the Safe Play Area in Rafah

By Sami Abu Salem

GAZA, 17 November 2004 - As one of the worst affected areas in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), children in this battle-weary border city in the Gaza Strip has seen more than their fair share of tragedy.

My parents did not prevent me to play here because it is near the house and it is safe and free.

Scores of children have been killed and hundreds wounded from army incursions. Frequent house demolitions by giant armored bulldozers have left several hundred children homeless. On average four homes are destroyed-a-day, leaving 1,200 people homeless each month.

Experts have documented widespread psychosocial distress. Poverty, unemployment, bloodshed and the demolitions have plunged children into a vicious circle in which they lose their childhood and have no opportunity to enjoy their time.

With the Municipality of Rafah, UNICEF has been carrying out several activities in Rafah to help children enjoy their childhood, develop their skills – and to restore a sense of normalcy in their shattered lives. One of these - the Safe Play Areas (SPA) project – gives children opportunities to spend their time in a secure and fun environment.

In the middle of the battle-torn Tal-Al-Sultan neighbourhood of Rafah, 14-year-old Rajaa' Alhanadi was playing in what resembles an earthquake zone. Dressed in a white T-shirt and shorts, he expressed anger at losing the SPA, which was reduced to a pile of ruble during an Israeli incursion in May 2004.

"Look, we have just stones and sand, we used to play here everyday. Now, we have rubbish, the Israeli bulldozers destroyed it, where should I go to play now?" said Alhanadi as he sat on the piles of debris of what used to be the Rafah SPA.

"I was peeping from the window, two (Israeli military) bulldozers uprooted the trees and demolished the walls. They flattened it, destroyed everything, now we do not play. Every morning I look at the debris, I just feel my head goes up-side-down, I remember the piano, the green trees, our trainer Ehab and my friends,” he said. 

Alhanadi, who likes football, said the only other nearby play venue is the sea, but that the beach access been sealed off by the Israelis.

“Now I spend my time at home, and some times I play in the rubble. Sometimes my legs get scratched. The children abroad are so happy and we are not, why they destroy it? Why did they prevent us from playing?"

Alhanadi expressed his hope that the UNICEF and the Municipality of Rafah will reconstruct the SPA in Tal Al-Sultan.

The mother of Alhanadi, Maryam, said that before the SPA was demolished, she was so happy that her son played at a safe area far from the sound of live fire. Indeed, her son’s schedule was organized depending on the time of playing in the SPA.

"In fact, the SPA was so useful. I felt that my son played in a safe area and near the house. Now everything has vanished,” she said. “I sympathize with my son. During the summer vacation, he has no place to play, and I do not allow him to go far away from the house. I pray to God that it will be reconstructed." she said.

Even though the SPA has been reduced to rubble and dust, children still flock to the area. During a recent visit, a little girl was jumping precariously from stone-to-stone.

Said 10-year-old Nuha Eid: "I used to spend beautiful time in the SPA, I used to meet my friends, play, jump the rope and slide. But now I spend my time only at home. Sometimes, I move around the rubble of our SPA and go back home.”

Nuha said that last school year she organized her time around the SPA operating hours. "I’d leave the school, eat, have a nap, study and then go to the SPA. The coming school year, there will be no SPA," she said mournfully.

Even the SPA facilitator, Ehab Eid, 22, lost his job after the SPA was demolished. He said that he was so keen to deal with children, and now feels utterly ashamed when he meets children in the streets.

"The children do not stop nagging with dozens of questions: ‘Uncle Ehab, when are we going to play again? No more playing? Where are the piano and the balls, will they rebuild it again?’ " he said.

"I used to organize individual and group games for the children. I provided them with toys, pianos and other instruments, they were so happy, it was so useful. Now they lost their useful and enjoyable time and as for me - I lost my job."

Dhoha Shaikh Al-Eid, and her friend Majdoline Shallouf, both aged 10 and from Al-Shabora Camp in Rafah, said that they used to come everyday to the SPA. They said it gave them the opportunity to practice their favorite games – rope jumping and running – in a safe and secure environment.

Said Majdoline: "It was good because it is safe – protected from Israeli tanks and helicopters. There were a lot of toys to play with, so it was enjoyable".

"My parents did not prevent me to play here because it is near the house and it is safe and free," Doha.

Doha's father, Khaled Shaikh Al-Eid, said the SPAs helped his daughter ease the psychological pressures she was experiencing. He said local parents protect the SPA and the trees just as they would protect their own houses.

Since June 2003 UNICEF has extended support to five SPAs in Rafah, each with eight month programmes. New extensions mean they will be supported until February 2005. Facilitators, volunteers and members of the local community help with programme implementation.

As for the destroyed SPA in Tal-Al Sultan, UNICEF has involved children, parents and others to re-build the facility. Ground-breaking is scheduled for the third quarter of 2004.

On average a SPA costs US$30,000 to establish.

UNICEF will add another 11SPAs by end of 2004, bringing the total to 21, reaching about 60,000 children. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the French National Committee of UNICEF have covered the bulk of the SPAs.



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