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World Mental Health Day 2021 – Palestine refugee youth helping heal their communities, one camp at a time

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Aya Krezem, UNRWA school counselor, conducting sport activities with UNRWA students at New Gaza Boys school. © 2021 UNRWA Photo by Mohammed Hinnawi

Some 256 Palestinians were killed during the devastating 11-day assault on Gaza in May. This included 66 children and - at the height of the attack - 113,000 were displaced. The lasting impact of this latest round of violence builds on already existing trauma from previous assaults and ongoing blockade on the Gaza Strip. The more than two million Palestinians who call Gaza home have lived through four wars in the last thirteen years and this latest assault added another layer of psychological distress on an already traumatized population.

An alarming number of the population of Gaza, almost 600,000 of whom are children and youth, display symptoms of severe distress and are at risk of developing mental health conditions and display symptoms of severe distress.

UNRWA has implemented mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) programming to mitigate the mental health costs arising from the increased need for mental health support and being born by residents of Gaza. This includes individual and group counselling sessions, hotlines for mental health support, afterschool sessions and the Keeping Kids Cool (KKC) summer camp activities that ran in Gaza throughout July 2021, targeting 150,000 children.

This World Mental Health Day, UNRWA underscores the importance of a life lived in dignity and free of the violence of war, remembering that the right to health, education and a dignified life are clearly enshrined in international human rights law. UNRWA also lauds the valiant efforts of mental health care professionals like those who are on the frontlines of service provision in Gaza. Many of them were involved in this year’s Gaza Keeping Kids Cook summer activities, providing vital psychosocial support to tens of thousands of traumatized children.

Huda Karret, a school counselor, was proud to work with KKC this past summer. “Helping to put a smile on children’s faces feels so good,” she said. “KKC activities helped children alleviate the psychological pressure they feel.”

According to Huda, the variety of activities and games available at KKC greatly contributed to resolving behavioral problems, especially behaviors related to bullying. “As a counselor, I understand that the stressful times children in Gaza went through during May conflict caused psychological trauma,” she noted.

Huda’s vital work at KKC was not limited to addressing behavioral symptoms of distress, she was also tasked with referral recommendations for the children who needs additional, individualized support. “One of the young girls who participated in the camp seemed deeply worried and insecure. I tried to spend more time with her and learned that she had been a first-hand witness to a traumatic incident in May. The team of counselors at the school paid extra attention to her, helping ease her into group activities.” Huda noticed a positive change in the student’s interactions thereafter.

Aya Krezem is another distinguished UNRWA school counselor, hired to work with children during the 2021 KKC camp. “My team and I were very collaborative to ensure the safety and psychological wellbeing of Palestine refugee children. I used a variety of methods to help them relieve their tensions and fears. From drawing and colouring, to dabka (traditional Palestinian dance), football, basketball and acting. The children found great joy in being involved in all these activities,” Aya said.

Aya believes that participating in KKC activities did not only help children have fun, but also positively impacted their life and social skills. “One of the most successful activities I conducted with the children was performing a traditional wedding. I had the children dress in traditional clothing and taught them to sing old Palestinian songs. They enjoyed it so much!”

Dr. Iyad Zaqoot, Head of the UNRWA Education MHPSS Unit, has worked closely with school counselors during the implementation of KKC activities and stressed the importance of holding KKC activities in UNRWA schools, symbolizing safety and security for parents and children alike. After the prolonged closure of schools due to COVID-19 and the military assault in May, children needed stability and familiarity. “These activities were formulated to include life skills. By emphasizing teamwork, tolerance and problem solving, we hoped to equip these children with the skills they need as survivors of violence,” said Dr. Iyad.

Dr. Iyad highlighted that from the 150,000 children and youth who participated in KKC activities, some 98,500 were deemed to be severely impacted by the assault and in need of additional mental health care.

UNRWA remains committed to addressing the mental health care needs of Palestine refugees in Gaza. We thank the donors who enable UNRWA to enhance its MHPSS programming and the teachers, counselors and camp coordinators who brought these programmes to life for thousands of Palestine refugee children and youth. See more KKC activities in the video below.