Gaza’s children cope through art

A Gaza child draws hope.

GAZA CITY, occupied Gaza Strip (IPS) - Despite the lingering trauma of living under siege, regular Israeli military attacks and the consequences of a bloody war several years ago, Gaza’s children still dream of happiness and of normal lives.

Islam Mqat, 9, from Gaza City’s al-Zarqa neighborhood, together with 150 family members, friends and neighbors, spent weeks cowering in her family’s apartment building as its was rocked and damaged by Israeli jets screaming overhead and bombing the trapped civilians below.

The Israeli military’s “Operation Cast Lead,” from December 2008 to January 2009, left more than 1,400 Palestinians dead, most of them civilian, including more than 300 children.

From her window Islam, and those trapped with her, saw people dying and wounded in the street below. Hundreds of people from al-Zarqa neighborhood died in the aerial bombardment.

Islam still experiences flashbacks. “I get very afraid when I hear the sound of jets in the sky. I’m afraid the Israelis will start bombing us and I will see dead people in the street again,” Islam told IPS.

But she, like thousands of other children in the coastal enclave is showing resilience, and daring to dream of a better future.

“I want to be a doctor so I can help people and save their lives. I dream of peace. In my imagination I see a peaceful Gaza with children playing and studying. I see a zoo and beautiful parks and cinemas,” says Islam.

Islam’s dreams have been captured in drawings she has made. A number of Gaza’s children are taking part in an art exhibition, organized by Oxfam, depicting their dream neighborhoods and describing their aspirations. Ten of the best drawings will be published in postcard form and sent to children and politicians abroad.

Islam lives in one of Gaza City’s poorest and most neglected neighborhoods, with her seven brothers and sisters, and her parents.

Al-Zarqa’s almost non-existent water and sewage infrastructure poses a constant threat to the Palestinian families living there. In an Oxfam survey of nearly 200 homes, 57 percent were found to be living below the poverty line, earning less than 1,000 shekels per month (about $300 US).

Thirty-eight percent of household heads are unemployed, 61 percent of the families have at least one child with a parasitic infection, 59 percent have skin diseases and 51 percent have suffered from diarrhea, the report said.

Despite the images of hope in Islam’s sketch, other children’s drawings reflect the post traumatic stress disorder affecting many Gazan children.

“Many of the children’s drawings have depicted corpses, soldiers, airplanes and blood,” Karl Schembri from Oxfam told IPS.

During the war more than half of Gaza’s children experienced a violent event, around 25 percent lost a loved one and 30 percent were forced to relocate.

Dr. Jameel Tahrawi from Gaza’s Islamic University conducted a study called “Drawings of Palestinian Children after the War on Gaza,” which surveyed 445 children in the north of Gaza.

“The study shows that over 82 percent of children drew the war and events related to it. Fifty-six percent used writing to explain their drawings as they felt the drawings were insufficient to convey their message,” Tahrawi told a Gaza Community Mental Health Program conference entitled “Twenty Months after the Israeli War on Gaza — Psychological Impacts on Palestinian Children” held in Gaza recently.

But there is still hope. Tahrawi explained that art therapy could be used as a bridge to a better future and that despite the gruesome content of many of the children’s pictures the drawings could help the children overcome their grief and move on.

“The children can relieve their stress by expressing their feelings instead of repressing them. I was surprised at the bright and cheerful colors used by certain children. I expected them all to use bleak colors such as black and brown. But the rainbow of colors is proof of their resilience,” Tahrawi told IPS.

“If they are given the chance and the same opportunities as other children they can overcome Gaza’s tragic history and circumstances. Unfortunately we don’t have sufficient people qualified in art therapy in Gaza,” added Tahrawi.

Dr. Suhail Diab from al-Quds Open University agrees that helping the children to understand their experiences and involving them in positive activities such as sport, music, writing and art would help to deal with their post traumatic experiences.

According to a study carried out on young medical patients, “Medical Art Therapy with Children” by Cathy Malchiodi, “participating in creative work within the medical setting can help rebuild the young patient’s sense of hope, self-esteem, autonomy, and competence while offering opportunities for safe and contained expression of feelings.”

Rahma Elesie, 9, has 14 brothers and sisters and also lives in al-Zarqa. In her spare time she plays on her computer or with her friends. But she loves drawing and painting.

“When I paint I feel happy and I feel relaxed. I like to imagine and draw pictures of happy families having picnics on the beach and I dream of being able to go for walks and picking pretty flowers,” Elesie tells IPS.

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