BY: JONATHAN LEANING
Disaster has become a perpetual state of being for the people of the Gaza Strip. Most of the more than 900,000 children and youth under the age of 18 living in Gaza have suffered trauma – often repeatedly – due to the periodic attacks and bombing by Israel on the population. According to estimates from the UNICEF Gaza field office, 373,000 children needed psycho-social first aid after the horrific Israeli offensive in the summer of 2014. Since then, the unpredictable violence has continued – Gazans never know where the next bombs are going to fall.
Having lived all her life in Gaza, Alaa Hammouda, a speaker at Grassroots’ upcoming 35th anniversary event, knows too well how hard it is for parents to live under constant fear of attack and home invasion. Anguish wells up in her eyes when she speaks of her own children. “They are living in constant war and with a continuous fear of bombs – the feeling of dying at any moment.”
As part of her commitment to spreading awareness of the situation in Gaza, Alaa is visiting the US to speak about the extremely difficult situation that she and her fellow Gazans experience daily. Working as the Advocacy and Media Officer at Grassroots’ partner the Gaza Community Mental Health Program (GCMHP), Alaa is doing what she can to spread the word and build solidarity for Gaza in the hopes of ending the conflict. For her, GCMHP fulfills an important role in providing mental health services to Gaza’s population. Founded in 1990, GCMHP now runs three mental health centers treating both children and adults.
The story of one 17-year-old teenage girl (who we will call Jamila, not her real name) illustrates the critical role GCMHP plays in Gaza. During the 2014 war on Gaza, her house was struck, trapping her under the rubble for several hours before rescue teams could free her. Both her aunt and her uncle died in the bombing. Jamila came to the clinic seeking help because she could not accept that she had lost her relatives.
According a co-worker of Alaa’s, Jamila “said that she wanted to scream; she wanted her home, her books and her uncle and aunt back. She said she wanted to die and could not bear all the things that had happened.” The girl had no hope for the future, she had poor concentration and had isolated herself from her friends. Since Jamila liked writing stories, she also practiced expressing herself in writing. Her parents got counseling at the center as well since they had difficulties handling their daughter’s strong feelings and their own losses. After having gone through a course of therapy, Jamila finally was able to put her feelings into words and learn relaxation techniques to better control her strong feelings.
In addition to providing direct therapy treatment, GCMHP also conducts mental health research as well as training nursing, psychology and social work graduates in mental health. The organization also initiated and has been active in the Palestinian International Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza.
Grassroots International is honored to welcome Alaa to speak at the “Resistance, Resilience and Power” panel on Saturday, October 20 in Boston, and join our 35th anniversary celebration that evening. Other panelists include Ozawa Bineshi Albert from the Indigenous Environmental Network, and Sofia Robles from the Mixe Peoples’ Services. The panel is free, but pre-registration is required, and tickets are available for the evening event. For more information about all the events during Grassroots International’s 35th Anniversary, including how to get tickets, visit GrassrootsOnline.org/35th.