by Stephen McCloskey, Director, Centre for Global Education

In January 2016, 400 children aged 7-13 years were enrolled on to a new two year project in the Gaza Strip funded by the NIPSA Developing World Fund. The project is jointly managed by the Centre for Global Education in Belfast and our partner in Gaza, the Canaan Institute, a dynamic Palestinian non-governmental organisation highly experienced in education, facilitation and capacity-building. The aim of the project is to provide psycho-social support to children suffering the acute effects of trauma caused by three wars in Gaza since 2008 and the grinding poverty created by a ten year Israeli siege. The project also supplements the children’s education because, like most young people in Gaza, they can only attend school for half a day because of a chronic shortage of school buildings. The project is delivered through four community centres in Gaza: the Never Stop Dreaming Center in Khan Yunis (southern Gaza); the Heker El Jame Youth Association, Deir el Balah (central Gaza); the Rural Family Development Association in Moghraga, a village 10 km south of Gaza City; and the Palestinian Women’s Development Society, Bureij, a refugee camp in central Gaza.

Children in Conflict

The programme was designed in response to the impact of conflict and poverty on Gaza’s children. The most recent Israeli operation in Gaza, 2014’s Operation ‘Protective Edge’, resulted in the highest number of Palestinian civilian casualties than in any year since 1967. 547 children were killed from a total of 1,462 civilian deaths and ‘nearly 68 percent of the children killed by Israeli forces were 12 years old or younger’. According to Unicef, 370,000 were left in need of ‘psycho-social aid’. In the midst of the conflict in August 2014, Unicef’s field officer, Pernilla Ironside, said: ‘There isn’t a single family in Gaza who hasn’t experienced personally death, injury, the loss of their home, extensive damage, displacement’. The Israeli casualties in the same conflict totalled 67 soldiers and six civilians.

The infrastructural damage in Gaza caused by ‘Protective Edge’ included 18,000 housing units partially or completely destroyed and 73 medical facilities and several ambulances damaged. The UN reported that 22 schools were completely destroyed and 118 schools damaged by the conflict which has exacerbated a crisis in education in Gaza. In 2012, the United Nations published a report titled Gaza in 2020: A Liveable Place? which argued that 250 additional schools were needed to address the present shortfall and accommodate a rising population predicted to increase to 2.1 million from the present 1.8 million by 2020. With the number of school buildings depleted further by ‘Protective Edge’, the education system is under unprecedented strain. 90 percent of schools in Gaza had to double shift – house two separate school populations in the same building every day – before ‘Protective Edge’ so schools will now be under even greater pressure to accommodate rising pupil numbers.

Psycho-Social Support

The problems created by the creaking infrastructure of the education system are compounded by the psychological effects of war and poverty on children. A ten year-old child in Gaza has suffered three major Israeli military engagements since 2008 and nearly ten years of an Israeli siege. In commenting on the multiple effects of war on Gaza’s children, Pernilla Ironside said: “The impact has truly been vast, both at a very physical level, in terms of casualties, injuries, the infrastructure that’s been damaged, but also importantly, emotionally and psychologically in terms of the destabilizing impact that not knowing, not truly feeling like there is anywhere safe to go in Gaza”. 

The psychological effects of conflict on children manifest themselves in many ways including fear, tension, aggression, becoming withdrawn and silent, difficulties in concentrating in school, and increasing isolation from family and friends. These psychological problems are also related to the ‘pressure cooker’ environment of households under severe economic pressure. Gaza has the highest unemployment rate in the world because of the Israeli siege which has reduced to a trickle the territory’s imports and exports. Entire communities have become dependent on food aid from the United Nations and suffer the extremities of privation that are entirely preventable if the blockade was lifted and Palestinians enabled to trade normally and build their economy. The explicit aim of the blockade was made clear by Dov Weisglass, an advisor to former prime minister Ehud Olmert, when he said ‘The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger’. The poverty experienced in Gaza is not the work of a natural disaster – a flood, drought, famine, earthquake or tsunami – but the result of a carefully calculated policy designed to make life untenable in Gaza. A ‘Red Lines’ document disclosed in 2012 showed that this policy included calculating the minimum number of calories needed by Gaza’s population to avoid malnutrition. Amnesty International is among many international human rights organisations that have deemed the blockade illegal under international law calling for it to be lifted without delay. In 2015, Amnesty said:

‘Gaza’s suffering is unacceptable and must end now. Israel has an obligation to end its collective punishment of Gaza’s civilian population, and completely lifting the blockade is the right thing to do’.

Education and Psycho-Social Support

The NIPSA supported programme in Gaza is helping communities deal with the effects of the siege by providing a structured and safe play and learning environment for children who are under the care of well-trained facilitators. The programme has four stages of delivery with the first involving the enrolment of 100 children aged 7-13 in each of the four designated communities. Each community promotes the programme and recruits the children through liaison with local schools which can help identify those young people most in need of psycho-social support and supplementary education activities. The second stage involves the recruitment of facilitators from the staff of each community centre to work with the children. The facilitators are trained in active learning methodologies, implementing workplans, organizing field trips and providing individual and group activities focused on key aspects of the school curriculum including Arabic, English, Health and Science, and Mathematics. The third stage involves the delivery of the training and play activities with the children including arts and crafts, puppet theatre, Dabka (traditional song and dance), storytelling, embroidery, role play and more formal curriculum-based work. The methodology for delivery divides the children into four groups of 25 according to their age. One group is taken in the morning and another in the afternoon. Each group attends their community centre three times a week in the morning or afternoon when they are not at school.

An experienced psychotherapist visits each centre on a weekly basis throughout the project to provide one-to-one counselling to children exhibiting the severest forms of trauma and in greatest need of support. Also, a total of twelve sessions are held for the children’s families in each centre to provide guidance on extending psycho-social support into the household. Parents are often unsure how to provide the best possible support to their children or, indeed, how to recognize the symptoms of trauma. These workshops guide families on the best form of parental support for their children and are widely taken-up in each community.

The fourth stage of delivery involves the organization of a ‘Celebration Day’ in each centre to acknowledge and share the many achievements of the children during the first year of the project. The Celebration Day puts on display the arts and crafts created by the children together with examples of the school curriculum work undertaken through the project in a range of subject areas. The children perform role plays, puppet theatre, song and dance in arrangements created in partnership with their facilitators. The staff and Board of Governors of each centre attend the Celebration Day with the children’s families and create a vibrant event that strengthens the confidence of the children which will grow stronger as the project moves into its second year. The Canaan Institute recognizes the importance of monitoring and evaluation and conducts a thorough assessment of the project activities through consultation with the children, facilitators, centre managers and parents. The outcomes of these consultations will help to inform delivery of the programme in year two.

The project has a significant impact on the children at multiple levels. It enhances their academic learning, strengthens their team ethos through group activities, enables them to have fun in a safe and structured play environment, and affords them opportunities for psycho-social support. These activities are made possible through the generosity of NIPSA members and both the Centre for Global Education and Canaan Institute deeply appreciate this support of our work