Overcoming loss in the rubble of Gaza

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A counsellor leads a game with balloons in a Gaza classroom, part of an effort to reintroduce children slowly to learning through recreational activities. © Gaza/2014/El Baba

By Catherine Weibel

For a young girl who lost her father and sister in the recent conflict in Gaza, returning to school is one step in a long process of recovery.

GAZA, State of Palestine, 29 September 2014 - Ten-year-old Shaima lives in Shuja’iyeh in eastern Gaza City, a crowded neighbourhood now mostly reduced to a vast expanse of rubble. The threat of explosive remnants of war looms around every corner.

An estimated 18,000 houses were destroyed in Gaza during the last round of hostilities, which left 506 children dead and more than 3,000 injured. On piles of what once were homes, banners bear the former occupants' names and phone numbers, in case someone wants to reach them.

At the end of a dusty street filled with sewage, a different kind of banner hangs on a wall. With a life-size image of a smiling man and a little girl, it marks the entrance to the home where they were killed.

Inside, a slightly older girl prepares for school, putting on the standard green uniform with white lace collar used by students here.

Ten days into the conflict, as the neighbourhood was being pounded with heavy artillery, mortars and air strikes, Shaima’s family moved to her grandfather’s apartment on the ground floor, which was thought to be a safer place.

“Early morning, the shelling got closer,” Shaima says. “Suddenly a bomb fell nearby. Everyone ran out, except for my father and younger sister. I heard people scream that he was dead.”

Her father, Adel, was on the sofa in the living room with her 2-year-old sister, Dima, in his arms, trying to rock her to sleep, when a shell struck the neighbour’s house. Both Adel and his daughter were killed by shrapnel that came bursting through the walls.

“I saw my uncle carrying my sister,” Shaima says. “I realized her head was cut off in the shelling. I didn’t look at my father’s body, because I was afraid his wounds were as bad. I ran away.”

In shock

Shaima is visited regularly by a counsellor from the Palestinian Centre for Democracy and Conflict Resolution (PCDCR), a UNICEF partner that specializes in child trauma. The counsellor sees her at home and helps her talk about her experience.

“I was not able to say goodbye to my dad,” Shaima tells the counsellor. “I don’t want to be an orphan, I want my dad to be with me. I only have wonderful memories of him. He used to buy me toys, even if I did not ask for them. I wish I could see him and my sister Dima again. I used to play with her. I liked to dress her and comb her hair.”

Shaima’s mother, Shereen, is equally in shock.

“My husband was a kind man. He never refused anything to our children, despite our modest means,” she says.

“Everyone said my daughter Dima was a beautiful little girl,” she continues. “I have seen dead and mutilated children on TV before, but when they brought out my own daughter, I was shocked.”

Getting Shaima back to school is a priority to help instil a sense of normality to her life. It is no easy task in Shuja’iyeh, where the new normal is streets lined with shattered buildings, and students tripping over rubble as they walk to school.

Even the school itself bears the scars of war – part of the building was brought down in an airstrike.

Back to learning

To help the children take their minds off the horrors they witnessed and experienced, UNICEF and partner organization MA’AN Development Center devoted the first week of school to recreational activities meant to ease schoolchildren slowly back to learning. UNICEF carried out the training of nearly 12,000 school counsellors, teachers and supervisors to enable them to address student anxieties after the conflict, and to identify those in need of specialized attention. This has led to to 230,000 school children receiving psychosocial support and participating in recreational activities during their first week back at school.

In class, Shaima and the other students play with colourful balloons under the watchful eyes of counsellors from MA’AN.

Suddenly, she freezes, and with a vacant look in her eyes, she stares at the walls, oblivious to her surroundings.

One of the counsellors immediately reaches out to her. “Come, play with us, then we will sing together,” he says.

“I cannot sing. I thought of my dad and my sister who are dead. I feel guilty,” Shaima replies, tears pouring down her face.

“Our students have seen and lived through terrible things. They cannot resume studying as if nothing happened,” says Randa Mahmoud, Shaima’s English teacher. “Recreational activities and psychosocial support help them cope with their experiences. Even Shaima managed to smile after playing in class, if only for a little while.”

There are at least 373,000 children in Gaza in desperate need of psychosocial support. UNICEF needs 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.