REHAM Qudaih wakes up nightly to the same nightmare: her father shot, lying on the ground in a pool of blood.
“In my dreams, he is on the ground, shot. When I have that dream, which I’ve had more than once, I wake up screaming,” she told the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).
In a recent study, NRC found that children living in the Gaza Strip are showing increasing signs of psychosocial deterioration since clashes re-ignited in the region.
“The violence children are witnessing in Gaza comes on top of an already worsening situation negatively impacting their mental wellbeing,” said NRC secretary-general Jan Egeland.
“They have faced three devastating wars and have been living under occupation. Now they are once again faced with the horrifying prospect of losing their loved ones, as they see more and more friends and relatives getting killed and injured,” he continued.
Now in its sixth week, protests at the border between Gaza and Israel have left more than 40 killed and 5,500 injured since its inception in March.
While Palestinian demonstrators are reportedly burning tires and using wirecutters to breach the barbed-wire border fence, Israeli forces have retaliated with rubber bullets and live ammunition.
Dubbed the “Great Return March”, the demonstrations are centred on Palestinian refugees’ right to return and resettle in Israel.
The NRC study — which saw 300 schoolchildren aged 10 to 12 being surveyed — found 56 per cent of them saying that they were suffering from nightmares.
Principals from 20 schools also reported a rise in symptoms of post-traumatic stress in children, including fear, anxiety and stress. The principals also ranked increased psychosocial support in schools as their top need currently.
Qudaih is 14 and lives in the Gaza Strip. She has suffered from ongoing nightmares since the 2014 Gaza-Israeli conflict.
She was making progress in coping with her trauma, but much was unravelled after her father was shot in the leg while attending protests.
On the day Qudaih’s father was shot, Israeli troops killed 20 Palestinian protesters and wounded more than 700, including children.
“We went there (to the protests) to reclaim our rights that were taken away by the occupation… we do not have electricity, rights or food. We don’t get any treatment or a chance to play,” Qudaih said.
Since 2007, Gaza has faced an economic blockade by Israel and Egypt, contributing to a persistent humanitarian crisis.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), half of the region’s children depend on humanitarian assistance and one in four needs pscyhosocial care.
The United States’ recent move to cut aid to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees further threatens the already fragile community.
In addition, there is a lack of medicine and health equipment, while power cuts and fuel shortages have disrupted water and sanitation services, leaving nine out of 10 families without access to safe water.
If such trends continue, the UN has predicted that Gaza will be uninhabitable by 2020.
Inconsolable since the incident, Qudaih constantly worries about the safety of her family and her future. And her nightmares keep on returning.
Sadly, her story is not a unique for the children living in the Gaza Strip.
“The escalating violence in Gaza has exacerbated the suffering of children, whose lives have been unbearably difficult for years,” said Unicef’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, Geert Cappelaere.
Apart from the symptoms of severe distress and trauma, Cappelaere added that children were also becoming casualties.
Mohammad Ayoub, 14, was among those killed in protests, significantly impacting the younger members of his family and the community at large.
“Children belong in schools, homes and playgrounds — they should never be targeted or encouraged to participate in violence,” Cappelaere said.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called on Israeli forces to curb the use of “lethal force against unarmed demonstrators”, while questioning “how children can present a threat of imminent death or serious injury to heavily-protected security force personnel”.
NRC highlighted the need for long-term investment in psychosocial support.
“For the children we work with, the nightmares continue for months and years after the violence that caused them. For these children, they don’t have a chance to recover from previous trauma before fresh layers arise.
“That builds up,” said Jon-Håkon Schultz, professor in Educational Psychology at the University of Tromsø in Norway.
“We need people to look seriously and invest in ways that we can counter these harmful psychological impacts,” he added.
The NRC provides psychosocial support to children living in Gaza and provides training for teachers through their Better Learning Programme, developed in partnership with the University of Tromsø in Norway.
One of the features involved screening children for nightmares and helping them work through their re-occurring ones through breathing and drawing exercises.
Qudaih is among the 250,000 children supported by NRC.
“We want to live dignified lives,” she said, urging the need for peaceful demonstrations.
The “Great Return March” began on March 30, and will end on May 15, to mark what Palestinians refer to as “Nakba” — a day that commemorates Palestinians’ displacement after the establishment of Israel in 1948.
Marchers have also pointed to the relocation of the United States embassy to Jerusalem as a driver for the demonstration, a move that will take place on May 15. IPS