Six months after ceasefire, children of Gaza are trapped in trauma
By Catherine Weibel
After losing their father and their home during the most recent conflict, two young girls in Gaza struggle to come to terms with the past and look to a brighter future.
GAZA, State of Palestine, 26 February 2015 – It has been six months since a precarious truce ended another devastating bout of violence in Gaza. For children like Samar and Rosol Barakat, the scars left by 51 days of hostilities last summer are as raw as ever.
During the conflict, the two girls, their parents and three other siblings fled their flat under heavy shelling. The family took refuge in a United Nations–run school. One night, the classroom in which they slept was hit by an artillery shell. Their father was killed, and their mother seriously injured. Both girls were wounded by shrapnel.
Samar, who is 11 years old, and Rosol, who is 6, could not go back to their home at the al-Nada residential towers, which had been destroyed. They moved in with their grandfather, among 12 people squeezed into a tiny and derelict two-bedroom flat in Beit Lahiya.
The family were among 100,000 Palestinians in Gaza, half of them children, who had their homes either partially or totally destroyed during last summer’s conflict and remain displaced.
“My children have lost everything, and they need everything,” says Samar and Rosol’s mother, Neveen. “I have to be both their mother and their father now.” Because of her injuries, Neveen has a disability and needs help to take care of herself.
No safe place
Samar and Rosol continue to suffer profound distress. Neveen constantly comforts her daughters as the two girls struggle to cope with the loss of their father.
It was months before Rosol agreed to wear her school uniform and return to school. When asked whether she likes her teacher, she freezes, becomes withdrawn and, after a few minutes, starts sobbing.
“My children were injured in a school,” says Neveen. “They saw people injured with missing hands or legs, with wounded faces and eyes. They saw her father killed. They no longer see school as a safe place.”
A psychosocial counsellor working for UNICEF partner Palestinian Centre for Democracy and Conflict Resolution (PCDCR) follows the progress of Rosol and her older sister Samar.
Samar has shown some signs of improvement. In the aftermath of the conflict, she had temper tantrums and refused to do her homework. After a number of sessions with the counsellor, she has become calmer.
Sometimes, Samar goes with her grandfather to see what is left of her former home, now reduced to rubble. While she has come closer to accepting the situation, she still finds it difficult to focus on her studies, and her learning achievements have dropped.
“At school, everything has changed, because of what happened to us. Our father was killed, my mom, my siblings and I were injured, and we no longer have a home,” Samar says.
Need for continuing support
Like many children in Gaza, Samar and Rosol need both psychosocial and educational support to resume their lives. The involvement of schools is critical in supporting students through the emotional and physical challenges they face. At least 281 schools were damaged in the coastal enclave, however, and many have yet to be repaired. Adding to the difficulty of the situation, teachers themselves suffer from distress.
So far, UNICEF has provided nearly 35,000 children and more than 7,000 caregivers with psychosocial support, and 12,000 public school teachers with additional coping skills to support children. UNICEF is also helping to repair public schools and provide school uniforms and shoes to children, after an initial back-to-school campaign in September that supported 230,000 children with school supplies. These efforts have helped improve students’ lives, but the situation remains precarious.
“There is no future for anyone in Gaza, men, women or children,” Ali, Neveen’s father, says. “A lot of promises have been made on the reconstruction of Gaza. We hope there is implementation at last, so my daughter can be treated and recover from her wounds, and so people who lost their homes like she did have a place to live and a better life.
“My grandchildren deserve to lead a good life,” he says. “Like all children in the world.”