Treating the hidden wounds of Gaza's children
By Simon Ingram
In the aftermath of violence and destruction, hundreds of thousands of children in Gaza urgently require psychological counselling and care.
GAZA, State of Palestine, 8 September 2014 – The story of 4-year-old Shima is surely as horrifying as that of any child who lived through the recent conflict in Gaza. Listening to the details recounted by her father, Ibrahim, one can only wonder that she survived the 50 days of intense fighting.
It began on day one, when the town of Beit Hanoun, where Shima lived with her parents and two siblings, came under heavy bombardment.
“I was terrified for the safety of my family,” Ibrahim recalls. “I told them to go immediately to the town centre, where they could stay with relatives. I said I would gather a few important documents and things from our house and follow them.”
It was, as Ibrahim now realizes, a fateful decision.
“Half an hour later, I got a call from someone saying that my family had been injured in an air strike. I rushed to the scene to find that my wife and my 14-year-old son, Mohammad, had been killed. Shima and her elder sister, Aseer, were badly injured. Aseer died four hours later in hospital.
Shima’s wounds were severe, including internal bleeding and damage to her kidneys. She underwent surgery, but when her condition worsened, she was referred to an Israeli hospital, where she spent 15 days.
Meanwhile, the conflict in Gaza raged on. Ibrahim took shelter in a school with other displaced people. During a brief ceasefire, he went to check on the family home, only to find that it had been levelled to the ground.
When Shima returned from hospital, a long healing process still ahead of her, she and her father moved into a small house in the centre of Gaza City. There the pair had another brush with death when they were nearly crushed by concrete and other debris from a nearby apartment block targeted in an air strike.
A succession of terrible events
Today, Ibrahim and Shima are living in a more remote area of the Gaza Strip, where their story came to the attention of the Centre for Democracy and Conflict Resolution (PCDCR), a UNICEF NGO partner that specializes in helping children suffering from trauma.
“Shima has been through a succession of terrible events,” said Rabee’ Mammoda, a support counsellor working on Shima’s case. “She witnessed the deaths of her mother and siblings. She suffered serious injuries herself, and then she suffered another traumatizing event. Children like her will require long-term care and counselling from professionals to help rebuild their lives.”
Her father says Shima’s symptoms are distressing.
“She clings to me wherever I go, and will only sleep in my lap. She knows her mother, her sister and her brother are dead, but she keeps asking when they will come back.”
Since the start of recent fighting in July, PCDCR’s emergency teams have provided psychosocial support to more than 5,000 children like Shima across Gaza.
According to UNICEF Chief of Child Protection Bruce Grant, these cases represent only a fraction of the needs.
“There are at least 373,000 children in desperate need of psychosocial support, and we have to move fast to help them,” says Grant. “Time is not on our side.”
While the current ceasefire holds, UNICEF and its partners are accelerating work on identifying the families most in need. Over the next four months, PCDCR, with help from UNICEF, will provide psychosocial support to 35,000 children and 10,000 caregivers through structured activities and one-on-one counselling. Symptoms of distress commonly exhibited by children include bedwetting, clinging to parents and nightmares.
At least 494 Palestinian children were reported killed during the hostilities in Gaza, and 2,101 others injured. UNICEF is seeking to raise US$4.5 million for psychosocial support programmes, as part of a larger appeal of $12.5 million for the whole child protection response plan.