Child Trauma in Gaza

Standing outside a youth centre in the north of Gaza, Mohammed, a confident 12-year-old,says he works hard at sciences in school and has big dreams: “I want to be an astronaut, I want to be the first astronaut from Gaza.”

For children in the war-ravaged region, imaginations remain intact. The situation is desperate though. Around half of Gaza’s population of 1.8 million are under the age of 18 - and though 500,000 children are back at school that means hundreds of thousands are without education. Thirty thousand children were displaced by the fighting. According to the UN, the summer conflict left more than 250 schools damaged, 26 beyond repair. Parents and school teachers say they can all see the toll the violence is taking on Gaza's children.

“For 51 days, friends and family of the children were killed, homes around them destroyed, no place was safe,” says Abu Sherif, a head teacher. “We are lucky they have come to help us”. He is referring to members of Hope and Play, a British charity set up by two Oxford graduates that aims to alleviate the trauma inflicted on children in the area by the conflict.

The men and women - dressed in colourful bear suits - enter the classroom and work hard to transform the mood, banging drums and playing music to the students. “The children are heavily traumatised by what has happened. These activities are designed to ease them back into education,” says Zaher Hania, one of Hope and Play’s “animators”.

The team visits three or four locations every day, spending two hours in each one. After lunch, they go to a youth centre in the village of Zanna, in the southern Gaza Strip. Hundreds of children are gathered in an opening surrounded by apocalyptic piles of rubble, where houses once stood. In the distance is the concrete wall and razorwire that separates Gaza from Israel, and a watchtower for the latter to monitor the border.

“By playing here, in the middle of the destruction, it helps the kids process what has happened,” says Tareq Ramdan, another animator. “It diminishes their fear.”

The charity’s visits are part of an emergency trauma scheme funded with money raised by Hope and Play and their predominately British donors. Its programmes are implemented by the Canaan Institute, a leading educational body in Gaza that has trained thousands of NGO workers across the Strip, and is designed to give children a break from the mental pain and suffering inflicted by the violence.

“Providing Gaza’s kids with learning and enjoyment, fostering open mindsets and lessening the psychological impact of ongoing conflict is vital to improving their chances of having a healthy and happy childhood,” adds trustee Iyas Al Qasem. “This will also help lay the foundation for a balanced and productive adulthood. We are doing no more than helping them have some of their basic human rights.”

“Gaza's children are no different from children elsewhere the world over - they simply try their best to lead normal lives." says Iyas.

Back at the youth centre in the north, Gaza’s premier wannabe-astronaut says he is looking forward to starting school again: “This is the first fun we have had since the war stopped, it allows us to forget everything which has happened.” Standing near him, Zaher Hania smiles. She says: “This is why we do these activities, why we do our work. We want to give them hope that anything is possible. We want them to see peace as the solution and that it is peace which will bring them a future and allow them to realise their dreams.

William George