Gaza’s Children: Playing in a Time of Crisis

May 17, 2024 | News

As the bombs fall on Gaza, groups led by community members are providing psychological first aid to children: play, support, and laughter

In Gaza, it’s Eid al-Fitr. In happier years, Palestinians would gather to celebrate the end Ramadan wearing cheerfully-patterned Eid outfits. The newly bought clothes represent hope and renewal.

This Eid is very different. In a shelter at a school in Deir Al-Balah in the Gaza Strip’s centre, an animated film called SpongeBob SquarePants is projected on the wall. The children watching the sea sponge being projected onto a wall by a laptop are smiling and nodding along. This is a school that has been on pause for the last five months.

Israel’s war against Gaza began on 22 Oct 2023 in retaliation to the 7 Oct attacks on Israel by Hamas. Hamas is a Sunni Muslim political movement and military group that governs a part of the Gaza Strip. The conflict has left orphaned several of the children in the shelter at Deir Al-Balah. All of them have been displaced by aerial bombings or land assaults multiple times. Some have seen Israeli forces take their parents away right in front of them.

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Islam Badwan, coordinator for psychosocial support of Sharek youth Forum SYF, a grassroots Palestinian charity established in 2004, says that each child is “deeply traumatictised”. He and his colleagues are working in emergency response on the ground with partners UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), and US child neurodiversity non-profit Project Hope Foundation. “The children that we see are always nervous. They can be violent. Badwan told Positive News that they have memory problems. “They also have problems arising from insecure food supplies, as well shame surrounding the lack of sanitation and bad hygiene.”

The psychological impact of the Gaza war is devastating. A child dies every 10 minute. Stress can cause chest pains, speech impairments, and difficulty breathing. It can also lead to reactive aggression, PTSD, and other psychosomatic symptoms. In a systematic review of papers relating to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents living in the Middle East (prior to the current conflict), the prevalence of PTSD was found between 23% and 70 % among Palestinian children.

SYF quickly shifted its focus from empowering girls and educating them to providing food, healthcare and psychological first aid for children and their play.

The Discovery Cinema at Al-Quds Open University, Rafah, shows cartoons and informative films to children. The goal is to boost children’s psychological wellbeing in a relatively safe environment

PFA is designed as a way to reduce the incidence of post-traumatic disorder in the immediate aftermaths of disasters and terrorism. It was developed by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs in 2006. It is a research-based approach that focuses primarily on eight core actions: contact and engagement; safety and comfort; calming and stabilisation; information gathering about current needs; practical assistance and connection with social support.

SYF (which translates to ‘your people’) had experience in this area, as they had a ready-made emergency plan from the Gaza war of 2008-2009 (Sharek Shaabak or ‘help you people’). In the three-week conflict between Gaza Strip Palestinian paramilitary group and the Israel Defense Forces in 2008-2009, 46,000 Gazan homes were destroyed. More than 1,400 Gazans also died.


Take inspiration from Hiroshima

Sarah Anbar, SYF’s project officer for evaluation, says that the charity has been working in recent months to help children. Along with talking therapy, the charity has also staged volleyball tournaments and played traditional Palestinian games like spinning game ‘bee-wasp’ and Al-Hjelle, or hopscotch.

Anbar explains that “the children tell us that they want movies, games, and other things to make them feel normal.” The Hiroshima Gaza initiative, the charity’s temporary classrooms program, is inspired by Hiroshima, a Japanese city that suffered the devastating effects of the nuclear bomb during the second world war, but went on to become one of Japan’s most productive and industrious centres. Around two million Palestinians are currently deprived of formal education due to the closure of schools in Gaza. The initiative offers weekly mathematics, Arabic and English lessons to children in shelters. According to Unicef, there are more than 850,000 shelters in the Gaza Strip.

Dr Audrey McMahon, a psychiatrist with the healthcare charity Medecins Sans Frontieres, supervises its mental health and psychosocial teams in Gaza. She says that the needs of the children who have been displaced by the current conflict are a ‘gigantic problem’. She tells Positive News that children need physical, emotional and psychological security from caring adults. “This is a very difficult situation as everyone, including adults in Gaza, is under threat.”

Research shows children who grow up in conflict zones have lifelong effects on their physical and psychological health, social well-being and development. MSF offers children counselling and recreational activities, such as play and storytelling, through clinics and hospitals. McMahon, however, says that grassroots Palestinian initiatives like SYF play a key role in creating a sense belonging and a “some normality” during a time of fragmentation. They do this through the lens and culture of Palestinian everyday life.

The most important thing for children is to feel safe, both physically and emotionally.

Children clap in a circle at a tent camp outside Rafah as a trio clowns perform somersaults, juggle rings and balls of different colours. They then lead Zumba dances, and joke behind their white face painting and comical bright-red noses. “You made us forget about the sounds of bombardments and brought joy to us,” says a smiling nine-year old boy. Free Gaza Circus is one of the Palestinian grassroots projects cited by McMahon as its adaptive response in supporting the mental needs of children during the latest war.

Free Gaza Circus was established in 2018 and, like SYF adapted quickly to the emergency situation. Many of its employees had to leave their homes in northern Gaza, in November 2023. They moved to Rafah in the south (which is currently under threat of bombing). Mohammed Khader, co-founder of FGC, tells us over the phone from Rafah that before the war they had weekly performances and trained 250 Palestinians in circus skills.

Salah Abu Harbel was one of the most talented acrobats in the circus. He was killed by a bombing attack in January. Khader has taken the project on tour despite the risks. The team is distributing food packages and cookies to the children in tented camps which have appeared in the desert, and on the outskirts Gaza City. They are also training and performing traditional circus acts. Khader says that music and dance can be used to combat PTSD and depression, and help children feel safer. Finding joy is our biggest psychological tool.

Gaza Free Circus conducts a variety of psychological support activities within the camps. Image: @shorouqalazbaki

Dr Nilofer Nqvi, psychologist at Iona University in New York and associate professor of psychology, says that play-based intervention for children living in conflict zones is an area of research and focus. Naqvi gives the example of Sesame Street’s collaboration in the Middle East & North Africa. It uses puppet characters like Jad, a boy forced to leave his home and Basma his new friend from the locality to help displaced kids make sense of their life via screened television shows and in person puppet shows.

She says that traditionally, play and leisure were considered fringe issues in conflict situations, where the main focus was on food, shelter, and addressing physical trauma. War Child’s research has shown that simple play-based projects, such as its TeamUp project which combines movement and play to release children’s pent up stress, play a vital part in boosting the wellbeing of children in refugee settings.

Music and dance can help children overcome PTSD and depression. They also make them feel safer. Finding joy is our biggest psychological aid.

Naqvi has mixed feelings regarding the now hegemonic notion of ‘psychological First Aid’. She cites , a recent paper written by Michael Wessells (former co-chair of United Nations’ IASC Taskforce on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings) that highlights the harm caused by culturally blind PFA intervention. This includes work to reintegrate former child soldiers in Sierra Leone, which excludes girls because it assumed that former combatants were only male; and counselling for sexual violence survivors that identifies them in the community. Naqvia says that it is clear that if PFAs are offered, they must come from the community and include contextually appropriate healing techniques.

Critics of the PFA also point out that it has limited evidence around outcomes, and that its focus is on training bystanders at the expense of ensuring that there are enough qualified mental health professionals available for long-term support.


Helping kids feel safe for a moment

On the opposite wall, a tapestry depiction of an olive is hung on the school shelter at Deir Al-Balah. The tree is a symbol for Palestinian identity. Its roots represent Palestinians’ ties with their land, and its branches their displacement. The Tree of Wishes was named by SYF workers, many of whom were themselves multiplely displaced. Children have stitched their own wishes onto the branches. Some children wrote ‘Please stop war’, while others simply said: I would like to return home’, or heartbreakingly, I would love to have a toy or a place to play’. Sarah Anbar says that “each day without a real truce costs us our mental and physical well-being.” “In the mental health and physical health of Gazan children.”

Mohammed Khader said that FGC has now gathered athletic young Gazans to form its travelling troupe. The troupe performs at UN relief sites and camps, as well as shelters. Many of these are located in disused school buildings. “I love it when children’s faces glow when we perform,” he continues. “It takes them off the horrific violence they have witnessed and suffered. In that moment, they forget about the bombings and the ruined homes. They forget the tears that they have shed. “At that moment, they feel safe.”


Main Image: Free Gaza Circus

The Solutions Journalism Accelerator, a program of the European Journalism Centre funded by Positive News, produces Developing Mental Wealth. This fund is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation



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