Healing minds in Gaza
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