A group of children performing at an art exhibition organized by the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme together with a kindergarten in Gaza.
Specialist help for traumatized children in Gaza
Disaster has become a normal state for the people of the Gaza Strip and thousands of children have been traumatized by the recurrent wars. Sida supports the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme which runs three psychiatric clinics in Gaza.
The Gaza Strip is home to more than 900,000 children and youth under the age of 18 and most of them have been exposed to traumatic events. According to estimates from the UNICEF Gaza field office, 373,000 children were in need of “psycho-social first aid” after the Israeli offensive in the summer of 2014. It lasted for 51 days and killed at least 2,200 people. 18,000 houses were destroyed and more than 100,000 people were left homeless.
“Unfortunately there was no place for parents and children to hide, it was an ongoing feeling of insecurity. You never knew where the bombs were going fall”, says psychiatrist Yasser Abu Jamei.
Yasser Abu Jamei is the CEO of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP), an organisation founded in 1990. Today it runs three mental health centres on the Gaza Strip treating both children and adults. The GCMHP also trains nursing, psychology and social work graduates in mental health and conducts research on the topic.
Between 2008 and 2014 the residents of the Gaza Strip suffered through three wars. Recovery has been slow, both of the physical environment and the mental health of the people. Disaster has become a normal state of affairs, which has left the residents in a state of hopelessness.
“Although the war has stopped we are not in a state of pre or post. Prior to the offensive the situation was terrible and after the offensive it hasn’t improved, the destruction is the same and the children are part of all this. There is no hope that things will improve soon”, says Yasser Abu Jamei.
Rawia Hammam is a psychologist at the GCMHP and she meets traumatized children and adolescents almost on a daily basis. She tells the story of a teenage girl whom she met in the fall of 2014. The war had destroyed her house and she was stuck under the rubble for several hours before the civil defence could get her out. Both her aunt and her uncle died. The 17-year-old came to the clinic because she could not accept that she had lost her relatives.
“She 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.
In therapy she was able to put her feelings into words and also learned relaxation techniques to better control her strong feelings. Since she liked writing stories she also practiced expressing herself in writing. Also her parents got counselling at the centre since they had difficulties handling their daughter's strong feelings.
“After five sessions she felt a little bit better and she told me that her sleep had improved”, says Rawia Hammam.
This seventeen-year-old was one of the 250 new patients that the centre accepted during the three months that followed the war of 2014, 100 of them under 18 years. The GCMHP team has gone from door to door in the most affected areas of the Gaza Strip and referred eleven percent of the people they have met to the centre for specialist treatment. For the youngest there is play therapy, for older children behavioural therapy and there is also family counselling and group therapy.
The most common symptoms among traumatized children are fear and anxiety. They cling to their parents, stutter and have nightmares, says Yasser Abu Jamei. In recent years GCMHP has received reports from the schools in Gaza of increased levels of aggression, concentration problems and low school achievement for many students.
“When children are exposed to war and don’t know how to express their feelings, they become aggressive towards each other. Even neighbours fight and the whole society becomes more aggressive”, says Yasser Abu Jamei.
This is why GCMHP also has preventive activities for school children, their teachers and parents. Students are taught how to solve problems without using their fists, teachers are trained in how to deal with aggressive children, and parents learn to use positive reinforcement instead of physical punishment.
“The most difficult thing in Gaza is to be a mom or a dad, because you cannot protect your child and make them feel secure”, says Rawia Hammam.