Like many young girls, 9-year-old Wala loved school, but the eight days of violence in Gaza in November 2012 are still a vivid memory. “We lived in fear. It was as if the house drowned under black smoke. I felt the earth shaking under my feet and would run to my mother who used to embrace me and promise me that everything was going to be okay. She’d say: 'These are just fireworks. Look how beautiful the colors are.’”
Even then, Wala says, “I knew she wasn't telling the truth, but that was her way of controlling our fear. I used to feel so safe in her arms.” After Wala’s mother died in an air strike, the family’s suffering was profound, and for Wala, the carefree days were over. At one point, she would only write “Mommy” and “Mommy, I miss you,” on all of her paperwork at school. She also complained about having flashbacks of dead and injured bodies.
“War causes severe trauma and has a terrible effect on society’s children,” explains Ola Badawi, an Acting Principal at an UNRWA school in the coastal enclave. “The last conflict in Gaza was vicious and had disastrous effects on our students.”
In order to assist Wala and other students like her, the school began offering a number of counselling sessions and other support. Ms Badawi says, “The first day of school will feature activities that seek to give students an emotional outlet to express their feelings – through paint, plays and other events.” They have noted major improvements already: Wala became an active participant in her classes, and her grades have improved.
Looking forward to a new chapter in the 2013/14 year, Wala is determined to remain optimistic and turns to the memory of her mother for strength. “My mom used to pray for me and wish me success. She wanted to see me finish school and college, and today, I promise her that I will continue my studies. She might not be with me right now, but I know she is watching over me.”
During times of emergencies in Gaza, UNRWA is there for Palestine refugee students by providing psychological support. This year, UNRWA is planning to place 195 counsellors at 192 schools in Gaza (78 per cent of the Agency total) to provide individual and group counselling sessions for students affected by conflict.
Additionally, as students go back to school, specialized teams of medical staff will conduct in-depth medical assessments and screenings for 70,000 children, including all first graders, to identify those whose health is suffering as a direct or indirect result of conflict in Gaza.