In spite of turmoil, UNRWA summer camps have brightened the lives of thousands of Gazan children
Samir Hamam (10) and his brother Zaher (11) enjoy the time they spend in Al-Shati Camp west of Gaza city, where they can play in a safe environment. The camp provides different toys and games and organises activities like drawing, art, and fun physical activities, all under the supervision of the Committee of Camp Services of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) which has restarted the activities of these summer camps after a stop of four years.
Israel attack leaves lasting trauma
While playing, the two brothers try to forget the fear they felt during Israel’s last assault on the besieged Gaza Strip. Their neighbour’s house was bombed in the Al-Shati camp, and they could not sleep for 11 days because of the terrifying sound of bombs and missiles which made the ground shake and which targeted every part of Gaza - Israel’s attacks were intensified during the nights of their last assault.
The two brothers witnessed many painful scenes during the Israeli attack, such as images of children who had been killed (behind paywall$) on the news. They tried to escape from the scenes of death and destruction, but these followed them into the house where they live with their parents, their three uncles and their sons who fled from their homes in the Al-Ghul area in the northern Gaza Strip.
"In school holidays we can’t wait to go to the school playground where we spend a lot of time. But in the last war, me and my friends were really scared, and since then we haven’t really met or played together. The camp has brought us together again and we have had sessions together about how to deal with hearing the sound of bombs"
Summer camps give children space to play
Today, at the camp, the brothers feel much better. Samir says to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab’s Arabic-language sister publication: “We usually play football in the cramped streets in our neighbourhood in the camp but we always have to stop when people walk past – there isn’t a proper space for us to play in.
That’s why in school holidays we can’t wait to go to the school playground where we spend a lot of time. But in the last war, me and my friends were really scared, and since then we haven’t really met or played together. The camp has brought us together again and we have had sessions together about how to deal with hearing the sound of bombs”.
UNRWA’s summer camps resumed last July, after none were held in Gaza for four years due to the financial crisis UNRWA has faced. Their return has met an enthusiastic welcome, with thousands of children coming to attend the activities, many of whom were injured during Israel’s last assault, and some of whom have been displaced from their homes, along with their families.
Relieving the psychological pressure on Gaza's children
Adnan Abu Hasna, who is the UNRWA Media Advisor in Gaza, explains that more than 150,000 children are taking part in the summer camps right now in 67 centres in eight of Gaza’s refugee camps. He points out that the aim behind starting the summer camps again is to reduce the psychological pressures which children in Gaza are under and free them from some of the traumatic memories of what they lived through during the 11 days of Israel’s last attack.
He reveals that UNRWA approved temporary work contracts for around 2,000 teachers and assistants for the camps as well as hundreds of mental health therapists, to participate in lessening the pressures on the children in Gaza.
Mona Madi (8) is keen to get to the summer camp every morning with her friends in Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood, Gaza city. She says she loves to be at camp more than at home because, “in our area everyone is scared now after many houses were destroyed. I was frightened and anxious during the bombing, and I hope that this camp will last longer than a month”.
"One thing which is concerning is how they talk about destruction and bombing and the different kinds of weapons: they will compare the sounds of these weapons to any sound or loud noises that they hear in their daily lives"
Mona hopes the toys and games at the summer camp, like the different coloured hula hoops, skipping ropes, balloons and trampolines can be brought to school for their daily exercise classes.
“School is only interested in lessons and we have breaks to have lunch and rest, but there are no games we can play for fun. I want to love school like I love the camp, and to play there with the same teachers we have in the camp”.
Difficult to forget the violence
Alaa Abu Daya who is responsible for the children’s activities in the camp says that during some of the activities the children express their mental anxieties and shock which reflects what they suffered from in the last war on Gaza.
“It is clear in drawings where they show their sadness about losing a friend or their home”. She also speaks about an increase in cases where children, especially boys, show abnormal levels of irritability and agitation when playing with their friends.
Summer camps have concluded in UNRWA schools in the West Bank, inc. East Jerusalem!— UNRWA (@UNRWA) July 15, 2021
“It's wonderful to see children once again be able to enjoy themselves together with their friends & be children after a very difficult year from COVID-19." @UNLazzarini https://t.co/YDRYTBQBWR pic.twitter.com/GKXLO4qujb
“These can be seen as violent reactions and in these cases we will contact their families in order to find out more about what is going on with them, and how they were before they came to the camp, in order to work out how best to help them return to a more peaceful mental state”.
She adds: “The children’s level of understanding is very high, and they are excited to learn and master every game. But one thing which is concerning is how they talk about destruction and bombing and the different kinds of weapons: they will compare the sounds of these weapons to any sound or loud noises that they hear in their daily lives, even in the summer camp.
This makes it difficult for them to forget the violence and what they have been through. So it is necessary to make as much effort as possible to improve their behaviour through making their brains focus on acquiring the skills which they can discover in the camp”.
This is a translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.
Translated by Rose Chacko