‘It is a different life’: Understanding the psychological pain of Gaza children

Dina Ezzat , Monday 27 Nov 2023

Psychiatrist Aida Seif El-Dawla says that despite their “remarkable resilience”, the children of Gaza will “certainly need someone to cling on to.”

Gaza kids
File Photo: Gaza kids. AP


The war on Gaza has turned the Strip into a “graveyard for children” and “the most unsafe place for children” – among other alarming statements.

UN and other officials are joining voices worldwide that are growing louder by the day against the atrocious brutality of Israel’s war on Gaza.

Angry voices are specifically focused on the huge toll of this brutal war that had killed close to 15,000 people in less than two months, 5,000 of whom are children.

“Children of Gaza are not at all unfamiliar with the horrifying images of death around them, but I am not sure if most of the children have seen anything at this scale,” said Seif El-Dawla. She added that, in general, shocking images of death are never comprehensible for children, especially if they come at this scale.

“This is not something that children have to put up with,” she added.
Seif El-Dawla is not just worried about the unfolding events in the past 50 days. She is anticipating an impact “that will eventually surface.”

“We cannot know for sure the nature of the impact, but we can see today the amount of fear, grief, and anxiety.”
Gazan children might find some solace, Seif El-Dawla argued, from the unconditional love and support they receive from parents around them, until the very last moment.

This, however, is far from enough under the unfolding massacre.
For now, Seif El-Dawla, who has dedicated a good part of her time to help victims of violence and torture, it is crucial to try to understand what those children are actually going through. 

“Videos from Gaza show children shaking in a very similar way; they are not necessarily crying; they are just shaking and it is done in a very similar pattern – this must be the impact of white phosphorus,” she said.

Israel has been accused by many anti-war activists, including some from the new Jewish movement in the US, that it is using prohibited weapons in its war on Gaza that started on 7 October in retaliation for an attack by Hamas.

Seif El-Dawla is hoping that the children of Gaza, especially those who suffered the loss of loved ones, will find some comfort and support. “Obviously in this case, the loss is far from being individual; and the nature of collective loss may allow for some sort of bonding,” she argued.

However, she noted, despite the possible sense of solace that the children of Gaza might find in their shared story of pain and grief, each and every one of these children will need to find someone to cling on to. “We are going to be seeing some new types of kinship; we are already seeing children holding on to doctors or paramedics that are helping them,” she said.

Again, the limited comfort that the new bonds will provide does not negate the fact that the children of Gaza, “despite the remarkable resilience they are showing,” will end up suffering “nightmares, separation fears, and attachment issues.”

“The children who saw their parents die due to the Israeli strikes will never overcome these images of loss,” she said. 
“This is a generation [heavy] with pain and trauma and one cannot talk about [post-traumatic stress disorder] because their trauma is ongoing,” Seif El-Dawla said.

These children will indeed need support, she noted. “They hang on to life and this is clear; they are getting some help as the war on Gaza continues – with small attempts to play, draw or celebrate a birthday,” she said. “At the end of the day, there is not that much help that can be provided under bombardment,” she added.

Post-war psychiatric help, she said, needs to be designed in line with the lifestyle and patterns of play that those children are used to enjoying – because it cannot just be anything.

“Clearly, regaining normalcy is essential, but there is so much that will depend on the possible level of normalcy that can be reached. It also depends on who is left of a child’s family and to whom this child could really cling,” she explained.

“Ultimately, however, for the children of Gaza things are different. It is a different life that they have to live,” she said.
Particularly worrying for Seif El-Dawla are the children whose physical abilities have been compromised by the Israeli strikes, because they need specific medical help along with the psychiatric help that has to set them out to accept the new reality of their bodies.

Seif El-Dawla stressed that everyone will need help and all concerned organisations need to come up with ideas and plans to deliver the essential psychological help. To start with, she said, the schools that the children of Gaza will go to when the war is over will have to have psychiatric staff.

Moreover, she added, there needs to be a homogenous approach towards rehabilitation because this is about the rehabilitation of the entire society of Gaza.

The population of Gaza stands at about 2.5 million people, half of whom are under 18 years of age – classified by the UN as children.

Seif El-Dawla argued that a crucial factor to the design of any rehabilitation programme relates to the acknowledgment of pain. “People, including children, should be allowed to grieve, speak up their minds, and talk about their fears and worries. It is wrong to try to deny this pain or pretend it is not there because this does not give a chance for people to heal,” she said.

Seif El-Dawla noted that speaking about one’s pain, especially after such a traumatic experience, is never easy and requires help. 
One way to help, she suggested, is to share experience. If children from Gaza get into a camp with children from other Arab countries who have suffered similar brutalities, such as children from Syria or Iraq, it would be useful for all the children involved. 

“Gaza’s children will need to avoid the denial of their pain. They will need to accept their grief and not be ashamed of it. This is possible only if they speak and open up,” she said.

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