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Q+A: Supporting children through conflict

West Bank and Gaza, August 21, 2014

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  • Children living in a shelter in Gaza City participate in games and races as part of our social resilience work. Photo: Assad El Saftawi for Mercy Corps

The ongoing conflict in Gaza has created a humanitarian catastrophe — hundreds of thousands of displaced families are in desperate need of food, water and basic supplies to help them survive as they wait for a lasting cease-fire.

While our team on the ground continues emergency distributions and water deliveries, they also know we cannot wait for peace to help children cope with the trauma they’ve already endured.

In the 139 square miles that make up the Gaza Strip, there is nowhere to escape the sounds, sights and fears of war. Young children have seen horrific things and suffered tremendous losses, and the trauma and fear that they are experiencing can cause lasting psychological damage.

This week, we began “social resilience” activities to help children process and cope with their experiences, and to offer a positive environment where they can play and escape the stress of their surroundings.

The sessions, held in the schools and homes where families are sheltering, are the first step in what will be a long recovery. Children, from ages 4 to 16, can come draw and play while their parents and caregivers can receive advice on how to help them cope.

We spoke with Dr. Jasem Humeid, Mercy Corps’ Social Resilience Programming Manager, about how the team is helping children even as fighting continues.

Q: What happens during the activity sessions that Mercy Corps is currently providing?

The children play games and draw pictures with colored pencils of whatever they want to draw. Some draw scenes related to the war. One drawing I saw had a plane firing a missile at a home, and a tank firing shells at the same home.

Others draw very nice pictures — orange trees, flowers, smiling faces. Some children draw sad faces. The psychologists ask the children what their drawings mean to them.

Q: How does drawing help children who have been affected by war?

The sessions are staffed by trained psychologists who work with the children to help them express their emotions. The child who drew the airplane shelling the house, she is telling us that she has been subjected to this experience, and that this is what she is worried about.

The drawing gives her an opportunity to express her own feelings, and at the same time allows us to recognize who is in need of more intensive help.

Drawing is not the end result. The psychologist needs to discuss what the drawing means to the child, and how he or she can overcome the bad feelings. If she is fearful, there are some activities that can help. The sessions also provide caregivers with guidance on how to support the children.

With longer sessions in the future, the children will learn how to deal with fear, sadness, and grief. This is just the first step.

Q: What kind of advice do you give the caregivers in these sessions?

It’s important to know that the children feel frightened and may express this in many different ways. They might not sleep well. It’s good to not leave them alone. This gives them a sense of security, especially for the younger children.

There are many problems — bed wetting, violence, nightmares, screaming in their sleep. All of these problems will require more focused help in the future. We are trying to reach as many people as we can to provide the first level of support.

Amongst those we work with now, we’ll select those who need the most help — children we will work with for a few months to help them cope with their trauma.


Photo: Assad El Saftawi for Mercy Corps

Q: Has Mercy Corps done similar work in Gaza before?

Prior to the current crisis, we were working with 1,800 children and their parents doing similar healing activities. We had completed 53 sessions out of 55, but we hadn’t yet provided them with supplies to continue the activities at home.

Last week during the cease-fire, we were finally able to give these children what they needed — they received backpacks, colored pencils, sheets of paper, balls.

Q: When can you begin the more focused sessions that the most traumatized children need?

Security is a prerequisite. We have 16 centers but several of them were hit directly by shells, with the windows and doors destroyed.

Q: How does the situation in Gaza compare to other crises where you have worked?

It is hard to compare one crisis to another, but in Gaza it’s a chronic emergency — there is a war every few years.

At any time, everyone feels like they might die. The feeling is that there is no single square centimeter in the Gaza Strip that is safe. No place is secure. Many people have decided to go back home to die instead of somewhere else.

Enduring repetitive traumatic experiences is very destructive. The cumulative effect of these events is damaging to the psychological well-being of civilians.

We have to stay positive and believe that there will be a solution so that people can live safely.