UNRWA Summer Games: A chance for kids to be kids
By Julia C. Hurley
September 2011 — During my time in Gaza, I have had the pleasure of seeing the impact of UNRWA’s Summer Games on the faces of hundreds of children throughout refugee camps, and at the Games sites.
Under difficult circumstances, the Summer Games offer a breath of fresh air for 250,000 children and their families. They are an opportunity for the kids to just be kids, helping to distance them from the political disaster and humanitarian crisis that has befallen the Gaza Strip.
I had the chance to speak with some of the families and children who benefited from the Games, and concluded that overall, the programme had an overwhelmingly positive impact not just on the participants, but on their families as well.
People here in Gaza face numerous challenges. Many of the kids involved in the Summer Games come from homes where both parents are unemployed and struggling to provide the basics for their families. Such simple pleasures as a day at the beach are out of reach.
“My only dream is safety for my kids”
Faria Saleh Ahmed, who lives in the Beach refugee camp, Gaza City, with her husband and four children, was thankful for the Summer Games for this very reason. “They are helpful since we can’t do these things for the kids,” she says.
Faria is unemployed and her husband, who used to work in a factory in Israel, is now selling water for no more than 20 shekels per day (less than US$5). She laments how limited her children’s expectations have become after growing up under siege. They still express interest in new toys, weekend trips, and the like, but have stopped asking for them.
“Mom, we know we can’t,” Faria recalls them saying. “The border is closed.”
Faria’s nine-year-old daughter, Shehed, was thrilled to be attending the Games and to have a chance to enjoy the simple things other children take for granted, like playing on the huge inflatable slides UNRWA brought in for the Games this year.
Of the five families I interviewed in refugee camps throughout the Strip, with 11 children participating in the Summer Games, all of them were thrilled by the activities. Parents seemed overjoyed that their children were getting the chance to experience something new that they could get excited about.
Shehad also loved the English classes provided at the Games. She tells me she wants to be an engineer, so she can “help build houses for the people”.
Her mother Faria has a much simpler wish for her children: “My only dream is safety for my kids.”
This sentiment was echoed by most of the parents with whom I spoke.
Many parents were also extremely impressed by the boost in the confidence of their children after the Summer Games. Many of these kids have been traumatised by years of ongoing conflict in Gaza; so much so that they have retreated into themselves, and have nightmares about what they have witnessed.
Three of Haneen Abu Zahitar’s children, from Jabalia camp, participated in the Games. Eight-year-old Raghad, who was incredibly shy and introverted, has blossomed this summer. “Now she is full of confidence,” Haneen tells me. “I’m happy because she needs to be able to take care of herself.”
A spot of newly instilled confidence really shined while I interviewed Amna El Negleh, nine years old, from Nuseirat camp in central Gaza. As I asked her questions about the Games and her UNRWA school, Amna replied with a mischievous smile on her face: “Why are you interviewing me?!”
Her mother chimed in and said that Amna is “more difficult now” because she wants to do things on her own, at which point we all erupted in laughter. Clearly, Amna’s mother thinks her daughter’s newfound self-assurance is a good thing.
Despite the heat, despite the siege, and despite the continued violence in the Gaza Strip, the Summer Games have been able to provide children here with an opportunity to be average kids for two weeks of the summer. The Games have also given parents the chance to see joy on the faces of their children, and ease the pain of not being able to provide a fun summer because of circumstance.
Without the Games, some of these children would have spent their summer thinking of all they do not have because of the situation here. Instead, this summer, they were able to laugh, smile, and have fun.
Most importantly, the Games give kids the opportunity to make friends and build the confidence they’ll need to achieve the big dreams that they all evidently have. Thanks to UNRWA, they will some day be able to look back with a smile at the summers of their childhood.