Heal­ing minds in Gaza

CityPress - - News -

In a ward at Shifa, Gaza’s largest hos­pi­tal, child ther­a­pist Rabeea Hamouda is try­ing to elicit a re­sponse from two tod­dler broth­ers, Omar and Mo­hammed, aged three and 18 months, re­spec­tively. He’s hop­ing for some words or per­haps a smile.

The chil­dren, pep­pered with burns and shrap­nel wounds sus­tained in Is­raeli shelling that hit their home in north Gaza, stare at him blankly.

Even­tu­ally, as Hamouda gen­tly teases them, pre­tend­ing to mix up their names and hold­ing out a present, a smile creeps across Mo­hammed’s face and the older one, Omar, cries out his name.

“At the begin­ning, Omar was not re­spond­ing to us at all, he was not even will­ing to say his name,” ex­plains Hamouda, who heads a team of 150 psy­chother­a­pists work­ing for the Pales­tinian Cen­tre for Democ­racy and Con­flict Res­o­lu­tion in Gaza.

“Big progress has been made with these chil­dren,” he says with a sense of relief and quiet ac­com­plish­ment.

The UN es­ti­mates that 400 000 Gazan chil­dren need psy­cho­log­i­cal care as a re­sult of not just the lat­est war in the ter­ri­tory, but the three pre­vi­ous con­flicts fought with Is­rael since 2006.

Whether the re­sult of Is­raeli air strikes, hav­ing par­ents or rel­a­tives killed be­fore their eyes, hear­ing mil­i­tants fir­ing rock­ets from their own towns or be­ing wounded them­selves, the psy­cho­log­i­cal trauma for Gaza’s young is pro­found.

The symp­toms range from night­mares, bed-wet­ting and be­havioural re­gres­sion to more de­bil­i­tat­ing men­tal anx­i­ety, in­clud­ing an in­abil­ity to process or ver­balise ex­pe­ri­ences.

There is also deep trauma on the other side of the border with tens of thou­sands of Is­raeli chil­dren men­tally dis­turbed by the rocket fire from mil­i­tants dur­ing the month-long war and over the years since Ha­mas seized con­trol of Gaza.

“The first time a child goes through a trau­matic event like a war, it’s just deeply ter­ri­fy­ing,” said Chris Gun­ness, the spokesper­son of the UN Relief and Works Agency, which has 200 psy­chother­a­pists work­ing in up to 90 clin­ics in Gaza.

“The sec­ond time is ter­ri­fy­ing-plu­sone be­cause the child re­mem­bers the worst parts of the last war as well as the im­pact of the cur­rent one. The third time is plus-plus as the mem­o­ries of con­flict build up.”

Hamouda and his team, like other psy­chother­apy units work­ing across the small ter­ri­tory, can barely cope with the num­ber of pa­tients re­quir­ing help. The treat­ment is ba­sic – an ef­fort to draw chil­dren out, to have them paint pic­tures of their ex­pe­ri­ences or emo­tions, to get them to ver­balise their cir­cum­stances.

A lot can be achieved with such sim­ple tech­niques, but many chil­dren need longer-term per­son­alised care.

“Houses can be re­built and some phys­i­cal wounds can be healed, but the peo­ple’s psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tion needs more than money and time,” says Hamouda. – Reuters

The first time a child goes through a trau­matic event like a war, it’s just deeply ter­ri­fy­ing

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