The Y.M.C.A. playground in Gaza City bustles with activity. The sound of laughter — of children playing and of young people joking — echoes even from a distance. In one area of the grounds, a few parents chat with their children and friends, while in other areas children practice soccer or develop their drawing skills. However, within closer range, one can pick up the softer tones of serious conversations about the ongoing trials Gaza’s Palestinian residents face.
Established in 1952, Gaza City’s Y.M.C.A. has 2,200 members across all age groups. It boasts men’s and women’s basketball and soccer teams, a fitness room for women, a hall for table tennis, and a training program for women’s boxing.
The association, with its Christian roots, provides a permanent and welcoming space for families in the Gaza Strip, regardless of their faith, to socialize, exercise or develop new skills. Members can take part in organized and structured activities or work independently on their own personal projects.
However, this was not the case a few months ago. The Y.M.C.A. facility, along with its solar energy system, was damaged last May during 11 days of warfare between Hamas, which controls Gaza, and the Israeli Defense Forces, when the adjacent building was destroyed in an airstrike. Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) financed the repairs at the Y.M.C.A., allowing the organization to return to its usual activities.
The conflict, from 10 to 21 May, was the fourth confrontation with Israel since 2008. Many lives were lost during those 11 days — 260 in Gaza and 13 in Israel — and more than 2,000 people were injured on both sides. Among the dead in Gaza were 66 children. Families were shattered.
Moreover, Gaza’s infrastructure, including schools, health facilities, public buildings, roads, energy lines, communications and sanitation, suffered extensive damage. About 1,500 housing units were destroyed and 880 units were severely damaged, displacing numerous families. Hundreds of other units had slight-to-moderate damage. The trade, health, education and agriculture sectors incurred significant losses in an already flailing economy.
Amid the rebuilding efforts, according to UNICEF, Gaza’s one million children “have been left reeling” from the devastating psychological effects of the conflict. There is no exact number for children suffering from poor mental health in Gaza, but mental health institutions are reporting an increase in such cases by the hundreds per month.
In response to the weight of the worries experienced by children in Gaza, the Y.M.C.A. is preparing to launch a five-month project, funded by CNEWA, that will offer psychological support to 150 children and about 100 mothers and young people. Participants will meet in groups twice weekly with psychologists and other specialists.
“This is a wonderful project, and we desperately need it,” says Hani Farah, the Y.M.C.A. director. “My conviction [is] that the Gaza Strip needs 250 projects like this one, because all the children in the Gaza Strip suffer from the effects of trauma and other problems.”
Children are impacted by daily pressures, he says, comparing their experience to a sealed barrel into which water continuously flows.
“These projects are tantamount to reducing that water in the pressure tanks,” he explains.
Mr. Farah says this new project, which will include mural drawing, coloring, reading, excursions and picnics, will bring “a renewal of hope for life and the future.”
Psychologists design the activities to help children express and therefore release some of the psychological stress they are experiencing and to learn to cope with the difficulties of living in Gaza, a densely occupied strip of land likened by some to an internment camp.
In particular, Mr. Farah says, Gaza’s children have taken the brunt of the conflicts, growing up with the reality of bombings and air strikes. Experts believe these children suffer from a series of psychological symptoms related to the fear of bombing, such as depression, anxiety, behavioral disorders, involuntary urination and nervousness.
The harsh conditions in which Gazan children and young people live are not the result of conflict alone, but the cumulative effects of the multiple crises in the region, including deteriorating economic conditions, high rates of unemployment and poverty, further impacted by the effects of COVID-19.
Imposed restrictions during the pandemic translated into a loss in Palestine’s tourism sector exceeding $1 billion, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (P.C.B.S.). The Palestinian economy shrank by nearly 12 percent in 2020 alone, constituting the second-largest decline since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994.
More than 66,000 Palestinians lost their jobs during the pandemic, which claimed 4,657 lives in the Palestinian Territories. According to the P.C.B.S., the unemployment and poverty rates have only increased since May. In October, the unemployment rate in Gaza was the highest in the Palestinian Territories at 89 percent, up from 75 percent before the war.
Ghassan Sabbah, 25, is among the young adults who frequent the Y.M.C.A. He received a university degree in public relations some years ago and has only found part-time work since then. He sits with his sister Jumana, 23, who holds a degree in accounting, and their two friends. They exchange jokes and laughter, but at the heart of their conversations are their struggles in finding permanent, full-time work.
Mr. Sabbah comes to the Y.M.C.A. to pass the time with his friends almost daily.
“We can’t imagine our day without sitting and spending a lot of time here,” he says.
“I bring my siblings and sometimes my cousins and my neighbors’ children to play here,” he continues, “to forget their worries and to live their childhood that was robbed from them by the tough conditions in the Gaza Strip.”
The Y.M.C.A. is not alone in its efforts to reduce the severity of psychological trauma among children in Gaza.
Over the past year, the Near East Council of Churches (N.E.C.C.) has implemented a psychosocial support project for children and mothers in its three clinics in Gaza, located in Al Shejaiya and Al Daraj, both east of Gaza City, and Rafah to the south.
The program targets kindergarten and school-age children, who exhibit psychological distress, such as fear, violence and bedwetting.
“There was a clear difference in the behavior of my son Muhammad after the sessions he received at the clinic,” says Um Muhammad, 47, one of the beneficiaries.
Mrs. Muhammad is a homemaker and the mother of five children. Muhammad, 14, is the eldest.
“I tried hard with my husband to moderate Muhammad’s behavior, but that was very difficult,” she says. “Now he is in a stable situation and shows greater cooperation with his siblings.”
During eight group sessions with child psychologists, children “receive advice on how to control anger and face difficulties,” says Lubna Sabah, the medical and psychosocial program coordinator for N.E.C.C.
These skills help to “strengthen the child’s personality and develop his abilities, as well as his ability to express himself,” she adds.
Children who participate have demonstrated a 60 percent improvement in their behavior, according to the evaluations, Mrs. Sabah reports.
However, the need of children and parents for continuous psychological support, especially in children who demonstrate chronic psychological trauma or mental illness, prompted the N.E.C.C. to establish a permanent program for this population group at its three sites.
“Specialists noticed in the post-war period children’s drawings were of dead bodies, demolished houses and shells, which they saw during the 11-day war,” says Mrs. Sabah.
“There are increasing complaints from parents that their children are afraid to go to school on their own, and there is an increase in bedwetting and trauma,” she adds.
She notes the increase in the number of children asking for help through their parents.
“We have about 2,000 children who receive psychological help in our clinics annually, in addition to 3,000 mothers,” continues Mrs. Sabah. “But during the period of the coronavirus, our capabilities have become limited, and we cannot deal with the large increase in numbers.
“With minimal means, it is possible to stop the bleeding in the mental health of children in the Gaza Strip through recreational activities, through drawing and exercise, especially in light of the continuing difficult situation and the high rates of unemployment and poverty in Palestinian society,” she adds.
Psychologist Nahed Harara says “the lack of resources and the ongoing wars” have created psychological conditions that “cannot be tolerated by adults and children.”
He points to a UNICEF report that indicates “one in three children in Gaza already required support for conflict-related trauma” prior to the conflict in May.
“The need for mental health and psychosocial support services for children has undoubtedly only grown” since the war, the report states. UNICEF claims about 200,000 children, ages 5 to 9, are currently in need of such care.
“But the number of teams that deal with such cases is few,” says Mr. Harara.
The proliferation of and easy access to social media in the past seven years — that is, since Gaza’s previous conflict with Israel — also means children today are accessing images of destruction and bloodshed more than ever, further impacting their mental health, says Mr. Harara.
These mental health struggles are in addition to the need for post-war humanitarian assistance, UNICEF points out.
“Children’s suffering is not separate from the suffering of parents,” says Mr. Harara. “The ability of parents to deal with them is limited under the difficult economic and political conditions, which increases cases of violence, fear and other behavioral problems in children.”
The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem responded quickly to children’s psychological trauma after the conflict in May, implementing a project to help children and their families in crisis by organizing daily activities for children in the parish, ages 5 to 16.
“The activities included games for children, water games and Dabkeh [a Middle Eastern line dance], in addition to Scouting for boys and girls, and weekly opportunities for families to gather, which improved the psyche of children and their families greatly,” explains Nisreen Antoun, project manager at the Roman Catholic parish of the Holy Family.
There are 13 Christian institutions in the Gaza Strip, including schools, social services and cultural centers that serve the Christian community as well as the predominantly Muslim population.
Gaza’s Roman Catholic pastor, the Rev. Gabriel Romanelli, believes these projects not only help people, but express Christianity in action.
“The aim of the projects is to declare our Christian faith with the parishioners and among all Christians and society in general, and through them we demonstrate our firm faith in Jesus Christ,” says Father Romanelli.
“This is why we are undertaking several projects that have a spiritual, moral and material dimension,” he adds.
The Latin Patriarchate helped repair Christian-owned homes partially damaged by the conflict.
“There was a severe shortage of materials available for reconstruction, and some of them were expensive,” says Nader Habash, coordinator of the reconstruction project of the Latin Patriarchate.
“But we tried with every effort to repair all these damages as quickly as possible, despite the high prices resulting from the closure of commercial crossings, which continued for a long time after the war,” he adds.
Joseph Hazboun, CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel, says the agency’s work over 70 years has aimed to help the Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip, particularly in the areas of public and mental health.
Throughout the Middle East, CNEWA operates as Pontifical Mission, a taskforce founded by Pope Pius XII in 1949 to address the displacement of peoples and other challenges triggered by the Arab-Israeli conflict. The pope placed this special mission under the administration of CNEWA, and his successors have broadened the mission’s mandate to include the care of all peoples in the region.
“There is always an urgent need for the population in Gaza,” says Mr. Hazboun. “We support health and education, despite the lack of funding during the recent period, but we continue to provide assistance as much as possible.
“Children, more than others, need help,” he continues. “With every war, children have seen scenes they should not have lived or seen.
“Parents may be able to help themselves, but children cannot, so we are trying to help.”
Hazem Balousha is a Palestinian journalist based in Gaza. He is a contributor to The Washington Post, the Guardian and Deutsche Welle, and the founder of the Palestinian Institute for Communication and Development.
The CNEWA Connection
In the Middle East, CNEWA operates under the title of Pontifical Mission. The origin of this special task force of the Holy See dates to the beginnings of the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1949, which created one of the largest displacement of peoples in the world. To care for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian homeless — many of them Christian — Pope Pius XII launched the Pontifical Mission for Palestine. He asked CNEWA to take on his special initiative, appointing the head of CNEWA as its president, and charging it with coordinating worldwide Catholic aid.
CNEWA has remained faithful to that initiative, setting up Pontifical Mission operations in Amman, Beirut and Jerusalem. Pius’s successors have continued to support this work, expanding the mandate of Pontifical Mission to assist all peoples in need throughout the Middle East.
Gaza has long been of special concern. After the conflict with Israel in May, generous benefactors gave to CNEWA’s emergency appeal, which restored the Rosary Sisters School, enabling 1,000 children to return to school. These funds also repaired the Y.M.C.A. and 24 damaged homes. Thousands of children now benefit from psychosocial support programs to heal from the trauma of war.
To support this important mission, call 1-866-322-4441 (Canada) or 1-800-442-6392 (United States), or visit our Palestine campaign page.