Learning on the Rubble

September, 2010

The Zaytoun neighborhood of Gaza City was devastated by Israeli attacks in January 2009. Many international news programs covered the shocking story of the Al-Samouni family when 29 members of the extended family were killed in one day. Children who survived the attack were stuck inside for three days with the bodies of their parents and relatives and without food or water because Israeli Occupation Forces wouldn't allow the Red Cross to evacuate the dead and injured.

When Dr. Mona El-Farra, MECA's Director of Gaza Projects, went back to visit what is left of the Al-Samouni family in July 2010, she found that their neighborhood, like most of Gaza, is still marked by piles of rubble from the Israeli attacks a year and a half earlier. Poverty and the Israeli blockade of building materials has prevented reconstruction. Many children had fallen behind in school due to physical injuries and psychological trauma.

Dr. El-Farra discussed what was needed with parents and children in the community, and immediately came to MECA and our partner in Gaza, Afaq Jadeeda Association, with the idea of a summer school for the children in this neighborhood. MECA provided financial support and Afaq Jaddeeda developed and ran the program.

In late July and early August, 120 children age 5-12 attended this ad-hoc summer school named “Learning on the Rubble.” Large tents were erected and six teachers with Arabic, English and Math credentials set up classrooms. But no child likes to go to school in the summer and tutoring alone wouldn't address the underlying problems, so the project staff created a fun and supportive environment. Local volunteers, along with a volunteer child therapist from the US, led play therapy activities. The volunteers had been trained through Afaq Jadeeda’s “Let the Children Play and Heal,” an ongoing psychosocial support project that MECA supports.

The children sang, drew, painted, played games and even left their neighborhood behind for two fieldtrips to a water park and to the Mediterranean Sea. At the end of the project, the staff organized a closing party and gave out gifts to thank the children for participating.

Wendy Foster, a volunteer child therapist from the US, reporting about her experience working at “Learning on the Rubble," stated:

More than half of the population of Gaza is under 18, and none of them were far from the shelling in the war 18 months ago. So, there is a lot of room for a child therapist to work. I work three days a week at one program and two at another, mostly doing psychoeducational (or just regular) games and activities. The language barrier is difficult, but the kids love to show how much English they know already, and are tickled when I try to speak Arabic.

One program has been titled “Learning on the Rubble.” All of the children in the programs had their homes destroyed or worse. Many of them lost parents and siblings. One little guy I met today has been disfigured on one side of his face. His teacher said that he has trouble remembering and learning. It is likely a combination of head injury and his entire family being killed around him.

At home, when working with traumatized children, I usually at least have the benefit of the traumatic situation having ended. Not so for these guys. There is still shelling from time to time. I was playing a sort of Pictionary today with some boys and ended up drawing a airplane, explaining that my father flew them, but making it clear that it was not a military plane. It did not matter. One boy took the marker, drew an arrow down and then a house below it. He then added helicopter blades on top of it. They know all too well.