Fear and Anxiety Eat With Us: Cycling For Gaza's Traumatized Kids

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The 2013 Cycling4Gaza team. Front photo of brother and sister in Gaza by Press TV

Cycling4Gaza, credit Kareem Salman
Cycling4Gaza, credit Kareem Salman

With hundreds of thousands of Gazan children enduring what one doctor calls "continuous PTSD" - from nightmares to apathy to fear of leaving home - after last year's Israeli assault, activists have embarked on the 7th annual Cycling4Gaza to raise funds to help them heal. Their 300-kilometer trek across the Netherlands will end at the Hague's International Criminal Court, which Palestine recently joined in order to bring war crimes charges against those who left in their brutal wake damaged children who've "lost hope in many things.”

Cycling4Gaza tour, running July 24-26, includes about 50 riders aged 14 to 68 from around the world, including an 18-year-old amputee  from Gaza and a 14-year-old cancer patient from the West Bank. Over the last six years, the group has raised $1.4 million to help over 9,600 Gazan children in a variety of ways. This year, with a goal of $286,000, they decided to launch a new mental health project in partnership with the Palestine Children's Relief Fund. It's no mystery why:  Last year's war left not just 551 children dead and 3,436 physically wounded, but an estimated 370,000 - over a third of the region's 900,000 children - in need of what UNICEF calls "psychosocial first aid."

Those children live in a state of "continuous post-traumatic stress disorder," says Dr. Yasser Abu Jamei, who runs the Gaza Community Mental Health Program's three clinics, and who himself lost 28 relatives, the most in a single air strike, during last year's Gaza assault. What they suffer from cannot simply be called post-traumatic stress disorder, he insists, "if it's not yet post." For many Palestinian children who lived through Gaza's war last summer, and one or even two wars before that, the source of their PTSD is not an isolated incident but the daily reality of living in a condition of chronic war, with an ongoing and terrifying sense there is "no place to hide." Living amidst the rubble of their houses and lives without proper food, water and too often families, children also suffer from a long list of ailments, from separation anxiety to bedwetting to listlessness to aggresssion. For play, they often act out funerals, or build towers from blocks, and then knock them down. According to aid workers, seven out of ten regularly have nightmares, over half no longer want to go to school either from fear or lack of concentration, and close to 90% of parents say their children are almost always afraid.

Many Palestinians worry that, despite the Gazans' legendary resilience, the result will be a generation of mentally and emotionally damaged children. In the searing "The Drone Eats With Me: Diaries from a City Under Fire," Atef Abu Saif chronicles the 51 days of the war, and all its "infinitely rich, infinitely unknowable" lives and stories that became mere numbers of casualties: "We prepare the suhoor. We all sit around five dishes: white cheese, hummus, orange jam, yellow cheese, and olives. Darkness eats with us. Fear and anxiety eat with us. The unknown eats with us. The F16 eats with us. The drone, and its operator somewhere out in Israel, eat with us." It is those terrors and memories the cyclists, among many others, hope to ease. Donate here.

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