The joy of children starting a new school year is a welcome sight in Gaza, but for many the trauma and loss brought by the recent conflict will take far longer to overcome.
GAZA, State of Palestine, 16 September 2014 – Early on Sunday, Gaza woke at last to a familiar sight: streets crowded with children dressed in school uniforms.
Half a million students have returned to school this week, with memories still fresh of 50 days of violence that engulfed the coastal enclave this summer and delayed the start of classes by three weeks.
The conflict – the third in just over five years – has left more than 500 children dead, more than 3,300 injured and nearly 400,000 more distressed by traumatic experiences.
“I have seen so much violence, I don’t know how to cope with it. My home was destroyed, my school was destroyed, and I had to move to a new one, which is not easy,” says 17-year-old Pascale Helles, who lives in Shejaiya, a neighbourhood that was levelled by air strikes.
“I already feel that I will not be able to pass my exams this year. All I wish for is having peace of mind. I wish everything could be like it was before, that my house were still standing.”
As Pascale speaks, one of her classmates starts sobbing. “She lost her fiancé in the war,” Pascale whispers.
One of the top priorities for UNICEF is to make sure that the almost quarter-million war-weary students enrolled in Gaza's public schools have access to psychosocial support.
“When we arrived at school, it was dirty, because it was used as a collective shelter to house displaced families during the war,” says Mnawwar Musabbeh, a school principal whose brother was killed in the fighting. “UNICEF helped us clean and disinfect the buildings. Now we are left with a more difficult task – eradicating fear.”
The first week of school is being devoted to recreational activities meant to ease the transition back to learning. UNICEF carried out the training of nearly 12,000 school counsellors, teachers and supervisors on improved counselling skills to help them address student anxieties after the conflict and to identify those who need more specialized help.
Huge efforts have been made to ensure that students return to safe, clean and well-equipped schools, with supportive teachers and counsellors. UNICEF has undertaken the cleaning of 27 public schools that were used as shelters during the height of the conflict, and is providing 130,000 school bags, including stationery kits and teaching aids for all government schools. More than a quarter of a million students in Gaza attend public-run schools.
No small victory
The conflict left 258 schools and kindergartens damaged, including 26 schools that are beyond repair. Approximately 60,000 people, of whom half are children below age 18, remain displaced at 20 UN-run schools. For Palestinians in Gaza, going back to school is no small victory.
“Some students today told me they were displeased to see that people had been celebrating weddings again. I told them: Don’t be,” says Amal Saftaoui, a teacher. “We must live a normal life, without fear. This is also why we are back in school today – to help our children and our students feel safer.”
At the Sheikh Radwan School in Gaza City, children looked relieved to be back in a familiar environment.
“I was so happy to be able to get out of my home at last, after so many weeks confined at home,” says 11-year-old Mohammed, who lost a cousin in the war. “I was frightened that some of my friends might also have been killed, but thank God, I found out this morning that it is not the case.”
On the girls’ side, hundreds of schoolgirls wearing green uniforms and lace trim collars ran around happily.
"It is beautiful to be back at school, free to leave my house and to play outside with my friends again," says 10-year-old Nour.
“Investing in education is an investment for the future,” said UNICEF State of Palestine Special Representative June Kunugi. “Without increased support and commitment to their education and protection, the future of children in Gaza will be bleak. It is our collective moral obligation to prevent this, and for this we need more support.”
UNICEF’s Back to School campaign is budgeted at just over $16 million until the end of 2014.