June 2009, Jabalia Camp, Gaza Strip
Face Your Fears to Conquer Them – a motto for life that young Samer*, a nine-year-old boy from Jabalia Camp in northern Gaza, was not able to embrace after witnessing a number of traumatic events in his young life.
First, there was the killing of a close friend of the family during the internecine fighting between Fatah and Hamas in Gaza. This event turned Samer from a normal child to another one quite suddenly, unable to cope with the size of the violence and the fear in his young mind.
Samer was unwilling to be alone, or even to leave the house.
"Samer was a normal child and used to have high marks in school. He completely changed," says his mother. "He became fragile, was afraid of the dark and afraid to be alone. He even refused to go to the bathroom by himself. His father or one of his brothers always had to accompany him. At night, he couldn’t sleep and had nightmares. He was scared that a ghost would take him to make him a ‘martyr’. He would bit his nails to the flesh."
Samer’s father was greatly distressed by the situation and decided to speak to a counselor hired to assist students at UNRWA schools under the Community Mental Health Programme established in 2002.
"Samer was so open and frank with the counselor; he told him things that I did not know. The counselor is in contact with me and advises us on how to deal with Samer to help him overcome his fears," says Samer’s father.
"It was the first semester of the school year when the father came and told me about his son’s behaviour, his dropping grades," recalls the counselor. "After three sessions Samer starting opening up to me and expressed his fears. I worked not only with Samer but with his parents as well, as I felt the atmosphere at home contributed to Samer’s condition."
As Samer’s situation was improving following the counselor’s intervention, a second shock shattered his life. During Operation Cast Lead the house where Samer and his family sought shelter sustained a direct missile hit, dismembering one of his uncles and severely injuring another – right in front of Ibrahim.
‘Samer became introverted again and his fears and distress increased," his father said. "We returned to point zero".
However, he is confident that with proper help from the school counselor, Ibrahim will come through this traumatic event in time. "Having this programme helped my son a lot. Of course, it helps many of the children and their families who face such horrible scenes by giving them advice on how to deal with our children’s fears and distress".
The Community and Mental Health Programme (CMHP) was established in the oPt in 2002 in response to the need for specialist support for refugee children and youth and their families who were living in difficult and often extremely violent circumstances. This intervention has been funded through the emergency appeal since 2007 in Gaza and 2008 in the West Bank. The scale of the recent conflict in Gaza has exposed the entire civilian population there to extreme events on an unprecedented level. In response, UNRWA is doubling the number of 200 counselors currently working in its Gaza schools to 400. The total budget need for Gaza identified under the QRP is US$ 6.7 million for the hiring of additional counselors, the purchase of counseling materials and equipment as well as the possible erection of temporary counseling rooms.
* Names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of those interviewed for this story.