By Monica Awad
Qalandia Refugee Camp, West Bank . Voices of children’s laughter filled the two large rooms decorated with colorful streamers, covering the walls of the newly built Qalandia Youth Center.
All 100 boys and girls were excited to participate in the psychosocial activities supported by UNICEF with funds from European Commission Humanitarian Office (ECHO), but more importantly they were anxious to meet the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, Mr. Louis Michel.
“ I want to tell the Commissioner that we have small houses, small streets and crowded schools” said Manar, a 9-year old girl from Qalandia refugee camp. Manar is one of the 100 girls and boys participating in the psychosocial activities supported by UNICEF with funds from ECHO. She attends the afternoon shift at Qalandia school for girls and is complaining of crowded classrooms.
The psychosocial activity at Qalandia Youth Center is part of Mr. Louis Michel’s field visit to the camp today. The purpose of the visit is to assess the humanitarian situation of children in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) and the action taken by UNICEF and its partners with funds from ECHO, towards ensuring children’s rights.
Osama, a 10 year old boy, while fully engaged with his drawing, holding colorful crayons said to the Commissioner: “We want to live like all children in the world. We want to be able to play football and hide and seek while feeling safe. I am afraid of checkpoints, I want to be safe”.
The European Commissioner responded to the child by saying: “We will support you and help you to live safely”. Osama comes from a family of six who live in Qalandia refugee camp. He has never been out of the camp except to Jericho, a nearby city 15 miles east of the camp, where he had to undergo a surgical procedure.
Walking to the next colorful room with EU and UNICEF banners hanging on the walls, Mr. Michel met with a young girl playing with her friends. “I want to be free like a bird” said 9 year old Shireen, moving her arms pretending to fly.
Shireen who aspires to be a mathematics teacher when she grows up, wants to be able to go and visit friends and family without passing through checkpoints manned by Israeli army.
Shireen’s friend Manar whose wishes are to become a lawyer to defend children’s rights in the future added: “I want you to build us more schools so that I can go to school in the morning instead of going to school during afternoon shift”. She added: “Israeli children have playgrounds, they have schools. I want to live like them”.
The European Commissioner acknowledged the children’s suffering, by saying: “We are here to help you and I am sure that young boys and girls like you don’t want war. Maybe in the future, you will become friends with Israeli kids and spread a message of peace”.
While Mr. Michel witnessed the various psychosocial activities carried out by children including music, drama, story telling and drawing, he said: “This project is a typically perfect project. It gives children new life and new hope”.
ECHO being the third largest donor to UNICEF’s emergency action globally, he added: “I have full admiration for UNICEF. When you see young boys and girls reactive and dynamic, waiting for and expecting love….. I find it miraculous”.
This activity is one of many psychosocial activities organized by the Ramallah district team which is one of the 12 teams in the West Bank and Gaza, supported by UNICEF and its partners with funds from ECHO. It aims at providing children with opportunities to express themselves peacefully while having fun. It also allows children to meet with friends and support each other.
The project also helps social workers and psychologists to detect distressed children and refer them to experts for individual counseling or group sessions.
The project also includes awareness raising sessions for caregivers aiming at equipping them with needed skills to detect signs of distress among their children and how best to provide support.
Since January 2005, more than 40,000 children aged 6-12 have been reached in the West Bank and Gaza and more than 22,000 caregivers have been reached through awareness raising sessions.
Qalandia camp is one of 19 refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, where more than 10,000 people reside out of which more than 53% are children below the age of 18. The vast majority of camp residents are living below the poverty line due to restricted access to labour market within Israel.