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Gaza Youth: Growing Up in 'The World's Largest Jail'

Nothing 'Post' about traumatic stress for Palestinian children

SAN FRANCISCO – A series of drawings is spread across the table in front of Ayman Nijim. One of them, in hues of yellow and blue, shows a row of helmeted stick figures – the Star of David carefully traced above each – bearing machine guns with a tank to their rear. On the side is a wall smeared in red and brown.

“Do you see those dots?” asks Nijim, 29, a community-based mental health worker in the Gaza Strip, as he points to a flurry of pencil marks decorating the wall. “They’re bullet holes.”

Such are the visions of youth in Gaza, says Nijim, whose organization Afaq Jadeeda, or New Horizons, works with young residents of Nuseirat Refugee Camp, one of eight such camps scattered across what many have described as the “world’s largest jail.” Over half of its residents, he says, are youth.

Some 53 percent of Palestinians are under 18, according to the latest figures, many growing up in conditions resembling concentration camps, with limited access to necessities like running water and electricity. Their experiences – and the trauma they carry – are the focus of New Horizons, part of the Bay Area-based Middle East Children’s Alliance. The group uses a combination of art, song and dance therapy to create what Nijim calls “healing communities.”

This article focuses on an ongoing and vital project supported by the Middles East Children's Alliance (MECA),  called "Let the Children Play and Heal."  Please consider a year-end gift to MECA to help  continue this vital work in Gaza at this especially difficult time.

Attaining that goal involves a process deeply embedded within the culture and context of Palestine, and more specifically Gaza, where community, religion and resistance are integral to identity.

“We do not have terms like post-traumatic,” Nijim notes, because the trauma is “ongoing … the bombs are still falling,” most recently in November during a brief but bloody flare up in violence that claimed six Israeli lives. Palestinian casualties numbered in the hundreds, many of them children.

Under such conditions, the question of healing becomes more one of perseverance, as Nijim explains it, of remaining whole amid a brutal conflict that has lasted now for almost 65 years.

A faculty member with the International Trauma Treatment Program in Olympia, Washington, this is Nijim’s first visit to the United States, a fact he notes with a touch of irony.

“I can travel to San Francisco, but I have never seen Jerusalem,” he says, referring to the disputed city claimed as a capital by both Palestinians and Israelis. Without the checkpoints, it’s an hour’s drive from his home in Gaza.

A Life of War

“War has followed me my entire life,” says Nijim, whose quick smile contrasts sharply with his taut frame and etched face. With a sardonic chuckle he recalls traveling to Baghdad in 2003 to pursue a degree in journalism and French, just ahead of the U.S. led invasion that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. It was during that conflict, he says, that he realized he wanted to work with youth.

“I spent three days under a bridge in Baghdad,” Nijim remembers, noting that local Iraqis refused to offer him refuge for fear that he could be mistaken as a foreign fighter. “I had no money, no [means of] communication, there was no electricity … I was just 20 years old and I was afraid.”

That’s when it dawned on him, the realization that his fear and sense of “powerlessness” were daily realities for millions of Palestinian youth. He returned home that same year and began working with the non-profit Save the Children Sweden. He joined the 20-strong staff of volunteers at New Horizons in 2006.

Nijim says the symptoms he sees include hyperactive and attention deficit disorders, extreme introversion, and anxiety. They manifest most clearly in the daily workshops he conducts with students in United Nations-run elementary and middle schools in the camp. A student who buries him or her self in the corner during a group dance, for example, and who might be dismissed by teachers as simply shy could in fact be exhibiting signs of trauma, he explains.

“92 percent of the kids in Palestine are coping with some form of trauma,” he says, offering the example of one 5 year old who in 2008 during a three-week Israeli offensive dubbed Operation Cast Lead, which claimed over 1000 Palestinian lives, witnessed the death of 27 relatives.

“His face was covered in shrapnel,” says Nijim, who met the child during a program he led called Learning From the Rubble. “It was traumatic for me to see him.”

Seeds of Future Conflict

When Nijim was seven years old, he and some friends were playing on the street. It was past curfew and so they ran into a nearby friend’s house, where they were soon confronted by a group of Israeli soldiers.

“They beat us … they asked, ‘Did you throw stones?’ We all said yes, together.”

Such politicization still permeates today’s Palestinian youth, he says. Favorite songs include tunes with lyrics like, “We are the children of Palestine … we live without living.”

Critics have accused New Horizons and similar projects of fueling anti-Israeli sentiment – and with it hatred of Jews – by encouraging students to express such views. Nijim says in response that it isn’t about hatred of Jews, but rather “hatred of the occupation.” He is adamant about this point. “I do not like the word ‘hate,’” he says.

But such acts of cultural self-assertion – which include the child throwing a stone at oncoming tanks – are also integral to his work. Referring to programs that include Arab folk dances and songs, Nijim says, “resilience and self esteem” are critical to the creation of a healing community.

“I would rather die,” he adds, “than have my psyche destroyed.”

Other projects include training mothers in how to respond to trauma, as well as possibly bringing in Buddhist techniques of mindfulness. But with conditions worsening by the day, the challenges continue to mount.

In the latest clash, says Ziad Abbas of the Middle East Children’s Alliance, traveling with Nijim, Israel dropped more than 1500 bombs on Gaza, which measures 139 square miles. “If you measure the number of people living in each square mile,” he says, “and then consider how many of those are children…”

On Wednesday, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the United States would sell Israel munitions worth $647 million in order to make up for that spent military inventory. The deal “will include the supply of 6,900 precision bomb kits” as well as “10,000 bombs of various kinds."

For Gaza's citizens, it's a distressing sign.

Things are in fact getting so bad, notes Nijim, that once-taboo subjects like mental health disorders are increasingly being acknowledged within Palestinian society. “People are fearful they are losing the future,” says Nijim.

As to the conflict, which enters its 65th year in May of 2013, the future from Nijim’s perspective is indeed bleak. “Without a political transformation, without an end to the killing of Palestinian children, we will end up with a generation of hardliners.”