By Catherine Weibel
GAZA CITY, State of Palestine, 26 December 2012 – In a small, dark flat, a dozen boys aged 8 to 13 sit in silence.
Telling their stories
All of the boys live in Beit Lahiya, a hard-hit neighbourhood in which UNICEF organizes group counselling sessions. As they speak, the children look at an emaciated boy who sits motionless on a chair, a white bandage on the top of his head.
“When the house of my neighbours was destroyed by an air strike, I saw a big red light, and there was a terrible noise,” says one of the children. Pointing at the motionless boy, he says, “This is Oudai*. Many people in his family were killed.”
Clutching his hands between his knees, Oudai whispers, “I was watching TV with my brother at home, and our father was praying. Suddenly, there was a big red light. I did not hear any noise. The house fell on me, and I found myself under rubble.”
Thirteen-year-old Oudai and his brother were dug from the rubble alive after an Israeli air strike had flattened the family home. His father and two toddler brothers were killed. His mother and a sister were severely injured.
Coping with trauma
Today’s session is part of UNICEF’s emergency psychosocial response in Gaza, in partnership with the Palestinian Center for Democracy and Conflict Resolution (PCDCR) and with support from donors such as the European Commission Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO) and the Government of Japan.
A rapid psychosocial assessment carried out by UNICEF and PCDCR revealed severe psychosocial distress among selected children living in the 35 hardest-hit areas of Gaza during the hostilities. UNICEF Child Protection Specialist in the State of Palestine Frank Roni says that other children may start developing symptoms in the coming months.
Group counseling sessions are organized in ‘safe spaces’ twice a week to help restore children’s sense of security in those hardest-hit areas. The children who display signs of trauma are referred for individual counseling sessions.
Hatem Naim, a counselor trained by PCDCR, asks the children to stand up – it’s time to play. While the other boys cheerfully jump out of their chairs, Oudai continues to sit, staring blankly, until Mr. Naim hands him a ball. Suddenly, the child comes to life. He smiles and starts playing with his friends.
“Oudai does not know how to cope with the traumatic event he went through. At times, he is detached from reality – it is called dissociation,” Mr. Roni says.
After the game, Mr. Naim gathers the boys in front of an empty chair. He asks them to pretend that their fear sits on this chair, and to tell everyone what they lived through and how they feel.
“This helps children express themselves and ask questions. In the end, it makes them feel better,” Mr. Naim explains. The counselor helps children understand that what happened is part of life so they can start building resilience.
In the aftermath of violence, many children in Gaza are in need of psychosocial support. For little Oudai, who was referred for individual counseling to help him accept the loss, playing with his friends is the first step on the long path to recovery.
* Name has been changed to protect the child’s identity.