Safa and Alaa: Empowering UNRWA Students in Gaza through Life Skills Education Lessons

15 August 2023
Alaa Moharam (left) and Safaa Ahmed (right) are dedicated assistant school counsellors at UNRWA Zaitoun Preparatory Girls School, providing vital support to young students in navigating the challenges of life in the Gaza Strip. © 2023 UNRWA Photo

Life in the Gaza Strip is marked by frequent conflicts and escalating tensions. For Palestine Refugee children living there, family vacations or even attending university in a neighbouring country are nearly impossible.

"When I first arrived at this school, I noticed that students were lining up to see their school counsellor for consultations. These are teenage girls who not only face the typical challenges of adolescence but also navigate the complex circumstances of life in the Gaza Strip,” shares Safa Ahmed, one of the two assistant psychosocial counsellors at the Zaitoun Preparatory Girls’ School A & C in Gaza. Safa and her colleague were hired as part of a project funded by EU Humanitarian Aid to enhance the psychological well-being and mental health of children in the embattled Gaza Strip.

The teenage girls under Safa’s care have experienced multiple rounds of war-like conflicts. Approximately one out of three children in Gaza requires psychological support due to war-related trauma, even long after the traumatic events have occurred. However, with limited resources and a large number of children and youth in need, the path to recovery is lengthy. It is filled with continuous cycles of injury, death and destruction, repeatedly triggering deep-rooted trauma over and over again and impeding the gradual recovery process.

“Unfortunately, children bear the consequences of violent conflicts, the blockade, political instability, and the wide-spread poverty in the coastal enclave. Around 1,000 out of the 1,500 students at our school require psychological support. We are here to help," Safa emphasises. This accounts for two-thirds of the entire student body.

UNRWA is committed to providing necessary resources for its schools to offer essential mental health and psychosocial support and counselling services to help students cope with the numerous crises they face. This commitment includes the employment of assistant counsellors like Safa Ahmed and Alaa Moharam, who adopt a holistic and integrated approach to promote the well-being of children and families.  They provide consultations and guidance to students, parents, and teachers.

As an assistant counsellor, Alaa conducts life skills education sessions and provides consultations to students. Building a connection with the girls and encouraging them to open up is one of her initial steps in supporting them. "When I started working here, I noticed that students were reserved and hesitant to express their feelings. This led to a loss of identity and undermined their potential in these challenging circumstances,” Alaa explains. “So, with the help of my colleague Safa and our supervisor, we implemented several initiatives to boost students’ self-esteem, help them discover their potential, and encourage them to express their feelings.”

In 2023, UNRWA aims to offer life skills education sessions, by means of recreational activities, targeted at all Palestine refugee children. It is the task of assistant counsellors, such as Safa and Alaa, to support the core counsellors in assessing whether a child is in need of specialised support from mental health specialists. Assistant counsellors like Safa and Alaa will also be available for consultations with parents, conducting some 800 public awareness sessions.

Thanks to the support from EU Humanitarian Aid, UNRWA has hired 568 assistant counsellors in 2023, ensuring two counsellors per school in Gaza to cope with the growing number of young people in need of psychosocial attention.