Gaza’s children return to schools scarred by May war

Rosie Scammel

The National  /  September 14, 2021

Teenagers find some classrooms unusable after air strikes leave holes in walls

Hands raised before their teacher, girls in Gaza expressed relief at being back in the classroom despite their school still bearing the scars of war.

“I was worried about the new year, I thought maybe we wouldn’t come back,” said Bian Abu Assi, a pupil at Al-Zaitoun Preparatory Girls’ School in Gaza City.

The 13-year-old was one of more than 1,000 pupils who returned to the school in August, three months after a devastating 11-day conflict with Israel.

While the teenagers sat side-by-side behind their desks, facing a wall decorated with trees and birds, other classrooms were unusable.

Shrapnel from nearby air strikes had ripped gaping holes in the yellow walls, while chairs lay scattered and a pin-board had been ripped in half.

“When I saw the school was damaged, I was so shocked,” said Farah Abu Saman, 13, above the din of a generator.

Some 186 schools in Gaza were damaged during the war, according to a July report by the Education Cluster which is supported by numerous NGOs.

Three of them are in such poor condition that pupils are having to study elsewhere, a September UN report said, while major reconstruction work elsewhere was finished in time for the academic year to start.

At Al-Zaitoun, which is run by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), pupils can see shrapnel marks on the walls. Glass shattered by the force of air strikes still needs to be replaced.

Recounting their first day back at school, one of the girls said all they talked about was the conflict.

Tasneem Abu Hashem (14) said it felt like they were coming together as “one family,” with teachers who were open to talking about what had happened.

One of her classmates, Hala Naim, said she was evacuated during the war.

“I tried not to show my fears, because I have younger brothers who cried all the time,” the 13-year-old said.

Gazan teenagers have lived through four wars and an Israeli blockade of the territory, which has led to a severe economic crisis.

Over the summer, catch-up learning and recreational activities were run by organizations such as UNICEF, the UN’s children’s agency, as a way of supporting families and detecting those most in need.

Children needing psychosocial support

“Even before the May escalation, one in three children in Gaza was in need of some form of psychosocial support,” said Lucia Elmi, UNICEF’s special representative for Palestine.

“It was really a big challenge and now it’s increased.”

The Israeli military launched thousands of air strikes on the Palestinian enclave in May, while Gaza militants fired thousands of rockets at Israel.

At least 67 children in Gaza and two in Israel were killed during the conflict, according to the UN, while hundreds were wounded.

In preparation for going back to school, Ms Elmi said teachers were trained in how to identify children who need special treatment beyond regular learning and peer support.

Although a ceasefire has largely held since May 21, Israel has launched air strikes on Gaza on numerous occasions.

The military fire has come in response to incendiary balloons launched over the fence by Palestinians, which have set Israeli land ablaze, and five instances of rockets being fired from the enclave.

Mahmoud Ahmed, a psychologist with medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), recalled being woken by an Israeli air strike earlier this month.

“I heard my neighbours’ children crying, screaming, ‘Is it the war again?’” he said. “They wanted to escape from their house.”

He is part of a team supporting families affected by the war, in particular helping parents explain what happened to their children and advising them on how to cope with behavioral changes.

Long-term trauma

While many children will overcome the stress experienced during the war, some will go on to develop a more traumatic reaction in the long term.

“It’s symptoms that will stay longer in the kids,” said Mario Lopez, who oversees an MSF team of psychologists in Gaza. “They will be bed-wetting, [having] flashbacks, social isolation. They are very afraid to go out, because they feel completely insecure.”

One of the pupils at Al-Zaitoun school spoke of how her family had focused on going out and picnicking, as a way of bringing relief after the ceasefire. Following 11 days cowering at home under nearly constant bombardment, Gazans thronged the streets once the peace deal was reached.

Returning to school for the first time in months can be a further step towards recovery for some of Gaza’s one million children.

“What children need to do is to socialize. They need to have fun, they need to go to school, to learn and to have life with dignity,” said Mr Lopez.

“But it’s a constant challenge for them to try and live what we could consider a normal life.”

Even if the fragile ceasefire continues to hold, the repeated bouts of cross-border violence threaten Gazans’ ability to cope.

“Just stop the trigger,” said Mr Ahmed. “Everything will stop after this. We will go back to normal life, for the children especially.”

Rosie Scammell – correspondent, Jerusalem