Shell-Shocked: Growing Up in Gaza

The children of war struggle to heal

by Hazem Balousha

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Twelve-year-old Nesma al Haddad spent the summer in the safest part of her apartment building: the living area on the ground floor of a 12-story building. The main entrance was just a few steps away, and there were few windows. Her room upstairs, with her bed and her assortment of beautiful collectibles, went unoccupied.

With Israel and Hamas at war in Gaza, Nesma tried to carry on with her normal life, hiding her anxiety from her five siblings, despite the sounds of explosions and gunfire during the bombardment of the surrounding neighborhood.

More than once, Nesma and her family were forced to flee to a neighbor’s house; an apartment on the eighth floor was a target. She would leave behind her belongings, except for a suitcase, packed in advance with her favorite clothes and a toy.

“I did not fear anything,” Nesma says. “I worried about losing my favorite toy that I had bought during the last war, in 2012. But I was more worried about losing one of my family members.”

Hers is an all too common story in Gaza these days, and it reveals the invisible scars borne by so many children of war. When talking with these children, and hearing their experiences, one learns how deeply they have been affected by the violence around them — trauma that will take years to heal fully.

Psychologist Jasser Salah met with Nesma during the war several times to assess the impact of the war on children. “Those remarks are her attempt to deny her feelings of fear and anxiety,” he says, adding that Nesma feels great pressure to remain calm for her family’s sake.

Such pressure, Mr. Salah adds, poses a greater challenge to the Gaza Strip’s children than its adults. At their early stage of psychological development, the stress of enduring armed conflict can leave deep and lasting impressions.

Gaza’s young may be especially vulnerable. A report published in 2012 by the United Nations notes the Gaza Strip has “one of the youngest populations worldwide,” with about 51 percent of the population under 18 years of age.That same report predicted the Gaza Strip could become virtually unlivable by 2020, according to available trend data for access to food, drinking water, electricity, sanitation infrastructure, health care and schooling. A shortage of clean water alone could create a crisis as early as 2016, due to the accelerating depletion of groundwater wells and inadequate sewage systems.

Additionally, the Palestinian Ministry of Education lists hundreds of schools as damaged, and dozens destroyed entirely. The scope of the devastation is vast.

“The needs are much greater than what we can provide,” says Sami El-Yousef, CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel, who has been working with numerous Catholic aid agencies operating in the region to coordinate aid, ensuring that scarce resources are not lost to duplication and competition.

Though emergency relief efforts are still underway, making a prosperous future a possibility for Gaza’s youth will require development initiatives for years to come — possibly, even, for decades.

“Gaza,” explains Mr. El-Yousef, “has to remain a priority for the foreseeable future.”

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