Gaza schoolchildren suffer nightmares and trauma over border clashes

Palestinian Children Have Nightmares After Father Killed In Gaza Protests
Widow Ghadeer Abu Jamous says her children are waking up screaming after their father was killed (NRC / Ahmed Mashharawi)

Children in conflicts, Education in emergencies

Palestinian students are getting psychosocial support at their schools after a rise in post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Mohammed Ayoub was only 14 when he was shot dead by an Israeli soldier at a demonstration by Palestinians two weeks ago. He had been getting psychosocial support at his school – along with thousands of other children in Gaza.

They are experiencing unusually high rates of nightmares since border protests began a month ago and resulted in clashes between Palestinians and Israelis.

Principals from 20 schools in Gaza reported a rise in symptoms of post-traumatic stress in children, including fears, anxiety, stress and nightmares. 

They said high levels of post-traumatic stress and low concentration at school were due to the violent response to the demonstrations, which are over Palestinian claims of their right to return to ancestral lands in Israel.

“The continuous violence children witness in Gaza is disastrous for their mental wellbeing,” said Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which surveyed children aged 10 to 12.

“A girl of 11 years has lived her whole life under blockade or siege and seen three wars with massive loss of life and housing. Now children are again faced with the horrifying prospect of losing family and friends, as many are killed and injured every week.”

The nightmares continue for months and years after the violence that causes them. Jon-Håkon Schultz, Professor in Educational Psychology at the University of Tromsø

Since the Great Return March demonstrations began, more than 38 Palestinian protestors have been killed, including four children. Over 6400 Palestinians have been injured, including at least 530 children – many of whom are left with amputated limbs and permanent disabilities.

Israel says soldiers have used tear gas, rubber bullets and live fire in response to Palestinian demonstrators tyring to burn the fence at the border and throwing rocks and firebombs.

United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein criticised Israel for using what he called “excessive force” and said live fire had caused a “staggering number” of injuries.

In March 56% of Palestinian children surveyed by NRC were suffering from traumatic nightmares. That has now risen to 60%.

The council provides psychosocial support to children and training for teachers through its Better Learning Programme. Part of the programme involves screening schoolchildren for nightmares – one of the most significant signs of psychological deterioration. 

“For the children we work with, the nightmares continue for months and years after the violence that causes them,” said Jon-Håkon Schultz, Professor in Educational Psychology at the University of Tromsø in Norway, which partners with NRC.

“The current crisis also brings back previous trauma and is a direct threat to the children’s mental health and their development.”

Reham Qudaih Aged 14 From Gaza Whose Father Was Shot

Reham Qudaih, 14, had nightmares about her father being killed after he was shot in the leg in March. She said: “I woke up screaming and I had this dream more than once.” (NRC / Ahmed Mashharawi)

NRC’s education programme coordinator in Gaza, Asa’d Ashour, said: “Children having nightmares are growing more impatient in school and unhappier with their lives – and they are unable to concentrate in class.”

Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said today: ““The escalating violence in Gaza has exacerbated the suffering of children whose lives have already been unbearably difficult for several years. Half of all children depend on humanitarian assistance, and one in four needs psychosocial care.

“Schools are overcrowded and operating on triple shifts, limiting children’s learning prospects.”

Ra’eda Ayoub, mother of Mohammed, said: “In his school, everyone loved him – his schoolmates and his teachers as well. 

“When Mohammed was buried, his brother was very affected that he dreamt of him. He screamed. He stayed up all night terrified and screaming until dawn. Then he told his father he wished it was him who got killed instead of Mohammed.

“The children would scream if they saw any photo of him. They stopped sleeping in the room in which he slept. They say they are afraid.”

Ghadeer Abu Jamous, whose husband Jehad was killed in the demonstrations, said her children are waking up crying and screaming at night.

She added: “They feel disconnected from everything and refuse to eat or drink.”

Last year Theirworld published a report about the effects of toxic stress – prolonged exposure to high levels of stress from trauma, violence, neglect or deprivation – on the development of young children.

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