The Unseen Scars. Gaza: One Year On

May 10, 2022

Alaa with her friends during one or War Child Psychosocial activities in Gaza
One year on from the escalation in violence that rocked the Gaza Strip, children are suffering a level of despair that is both new and frightening. We are working with partners across the crowded enclave to provide urgently needed mental health support.

New Levels of Despair

The people of Gaza are all too familiar with war and suffering. Yet, last year’s escalation in violence has produced “levels of despair that are both new and frightening”, says our Child Protection and Psychosocial Support Specialist Heba Ghalayini.

Working on the ground in the immediate aftermath of the May bombardment, Heba witnessed panic turn to shock turn to deep-seated trauma. “In those first months, I met children who were showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as well as other serious mental health conditions”, she says. She also mentions nightmares, aggression, and an inability to focus.

Latest reports reveal the scale of the crisis, with some 675,000 children - around two thirds of all children in Gaza - in urgent need of psychological support.

War Child Protection and Psychosocial Support Specialist Heba Ghalayini

Psychosocial Support Specialist Heba Ghalayini warns of an escalating mental health crisis

Alaa drawing during a War Child Psychosocial session in Gaza

Sports, play, drawing - Alaa (11) is embracing it all in her journey to recovery

Sadness and Anxiety

“As humanitarians, we often talk about ‘resilience’. But in Gaza, it’s something else altogether - people are constantly living in survival mode”, says Heba. “What I’m seeing is a rapid increase in negative coping mechanisms and violence inside families. Parents and caregivers are taking their frustration out on their children.”

Research conducted by War Child and Save the Children supports these findings with the majority of respondents (78 per cent) reporting signs of distress and other negative changes in their mood or behaviour including sadness, anxiety and social withdrawal.

Meanwhile, around 79 per cent noticed mental health problems in one or more of their children.

Emergency Response

To meet these challenges, War Child launched an emergency response. To date, we have been able to reach some 9,624 children and 3,809 caregivers. Central to these efforts was a joint response funded by the Dutch Relief Alliance.

Together with other organisations and partners in Gaza we are providing assistance on a range of issues: from a shortage of mental health services to a lack of clean drinking water.

Children in Gaza during one of War Child's TeamUp sessions.

Our TeamUp method brings children together to release tension in a safe space

War Child's activities for children focus on one-to-one therapy sessions and creative group play and movement. This combination helps them manage stress and let go of difficult emotions in a safe, supportive space.

For 11 year-old Alaa, who watched from her window in disbelief as air strikes destroyed nearby houses, these activities have been an important part of the healing process. “At the beginning of the sessions with the therapist, I was very shy”, she says. “But after several sessions, I opened up and gained confidence - I was able to mingle more with the other girls.”

Next Steps

As our assessment highlights, violence breeds violence - and it is women and children who often suffer most. In the months ahead, we will accelerate the set-up of vital protection services to support survivors of gender-based violence.

We will continue to call for access to protection, mental health and psychosocial support services to children and affected families in Gaza, and for unhindered access by humanitarian actors to facilitate the rebuilding of homes and infrastructure. We call on all parties to end the violence and create a peaceful environment necessary for children to develop to their full potential.

This is absolutely vital as tensions flare up once again across the occupied Palestinian territory. Everyone - from governments to donors to non-governmental organisations, businesses and individuals - must give this crisis their highest priority.