Thanks to the generosity of Gaza 5Kers like you, progress is being made for Palestine refugee children who have suffered from psychological trauma.
When visiting the Gaza Strip in February 2017, we had the opportunity to sit down with UNRWA CMHP counselors you funded, learn how your support is transforming lives:
For fifth grader, Duaa, life came to a halt when a bomb dropped on her neighbor’s home in 2014. The trauma she experienced that night sent her into full shock. Unable to speak, walk, or do daily activities on her own, Duaa’s family panicked as they watched their bright, vivacious 11 year old slip further and further away.
Prior to the incident, Duaa performed at the top of her class and was her family's pride. She was playful, spirited and passionate about her education. Now, she functioned like a toddler.
That’s when her UNRWA school counselor, Mohamed*, stepped in. He worked tirelessly with Duaa and her family using a comprehensive approach. He regularly visited with her and read her books. He showed her photos of school, brought her textbooks to look at and talked to her about her classmates. Mohamed helped her process the trauma she experienced by validating her emotions and creating a safe space to talk. After several months, he brought her to the school gate just to watch the other children coming and going. He knew that rushing the process of returning to school would not lead to long term success.
Six months into her recovery, Duaa returned to school part time with no pressure to perform. Through patience, empathy, and the professional help provided by Mohamed, Duaa regained her ability to speak and ultimately had the tools she needed to cope with her PTSD.
Three years later, Duaa is back to where she was prior to the trauma. She's caught up in school and is in the top 10% of her class.
Due to the 10-year long blockade on the air, land, and sea, Palestine refugees living in the Gaza Strip have few opportunities to leave -- education is often the only sliver of hope for families with many seeing it as their only path out of poverty.
The importance of education is stressed so highly in Gaza that children as young as third grade, 9 or 10 years old, often suffer from the enormous pressure they get from their families to perform well. This anxiety is developed as a physiological response from a brain that perceives danger.
Sarah*, a young girl in third grade, developed such severe anxiety that she began pulling out her hair during math class. This may seem like a nervous habit, just like biting your nails or twirling your hair, but this was much more than that. Sarah was suffering from bald spots, and her mother made her wear a headscarf to cover them. The humiliation Sarah faced form wearing this headscarf at such a young age, coupled with the extreme pressure on doing well in school exacerbated her anxiety.
UNRWA CMHP counselors worked with Sarah on developing healthy coping mechanisms for Sarah to relieve the stress she was facing. They also worked with her parents on bringing greater perspective to the importance of school performance and reducing the pressure Sarah was feeling from them to understand that although school is important, it should not be at the cost of a young child’s mental health.
Through the behavioral counseling Sarah received, she stopped pulling out her hair and her mother let attend school without a headscarf. With the intense pressure to perform reduced, she even began enjoying her math class which was previously her greatest source of anxiety!
UNRWA CMHP counselors do more than help children, they have the power to help a child’s entire family. The situation in Gaza puts many families in difficult positions -- high unemployment rates, extreme poverty, and not having enough food to eat are contributing factors in high rates of domestic abuse.
In the case of Ahmed*, all of these factors played a role in his depression. When Ahmed fell behind in school, things got scary. Because of his father’s unemployment, Ahmed was forced to leave school to help provide for the family. Ahmed’s parents were divorced. His father eventually remarried, but his lack of coping mechanisms for his anger translated into domestic abuse. He started to hit Ahmed.
Leaving school, being forced to take on huge responsibility from a young age and the physical abuse that he endured took a heavy toll on Ahmed’s emotional and physical wellbeing. He had suicidal thoughts and would often run away from home.
An UNRWA CMHP counselor sat down with Ahmed’s father for several one-on-one sessions and worked with him to develop ways to manage his anger and violent outbursts. Eventually, he started coming around. Ahmed’s counselor worked with him, his family members, and teachers, to best determine what Ahmed needed to get better.
Through the help of these counselors, Ahmed is now back in school and no longer experiencing suicidal thoughts.
Legal counseling is difficult to come by in the Gaza Strip, but as part of CMHP, UNRWA has legal counselors that provide pro-bono legal counseling references for refugees in need.
In Gaza, divorce and custody laws favor men. When a woman remarries after a divorce, she generally loses custody of her children.
Summaya* was barred from seeing her daughter by her ex-husband. Guilt consumed her for moving on with her life after leaving her toxic marriage. She reached out to a CMHP counselor who connected her with UNRWA legal counsel to explore her custody options.
The counselor informed her that she had the legal right to visitation, and after three sessions of working closely together, the court ordered a custody agreement allowing her to see her daughter every Friday. Summaya maintains a close relationship with her daughter and and she is now relieved of the guilt and shame that consumed her.
Much of the trauma that plagues younger Palestinian children living in the Gaza Strip is a result of the Israeli military assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014.
During the time of the assault, Adam* was just four years old, and witnessed the death of his aunt as she was standing next to him.
The trauma of her death caused Adam to be deeply fearful and withdrawn. When it came time for him to start first grade, he refused to go to school. His family did not recognize that this was a sign of PTSD -- they relied on superstition to identify the problem.
An UNRWA CMHP counselor was able to work with the family to find what works best with Adam; the key was not putting pressure on Adam. In his first year, he barely passed with a 69%. The goal was simply to for him to get comfortable leaving the house and his parents to attend school.
After continuous work with the counselor, the following year Adam finished third in his class!
With little prospects for the future in a blockaded Gaza Strip, the importance of education is strongly stressed. This pressure begins to have an effect on both a child’s mental and physical health.
Samer* had been missing from school for a month, so Samer’s father went to the school to explain his son’s absence. Samer had been suffering from a terrible, unsightly, and uncomfortable skin rash.
The UNRWA CMHP counselor discovered that this rash would flare up during exam time. The stress on Samer was so great, his body would react with an outbreak. A rash at any age can be annoying, painful, and embarrassing.
The counselor worked with Samer to develop stress coping skills and his skin cleared up.
Samer was able to return to school within the next month. After learning coping mechanisms to help him process his stress rather than internalize it, Samer has not had a flare up and is doing well in school!
*names changed for privacy purposes