Catholic agencies use clown, puppets to help Gaza kids overcome trauma

JERUSALEM — Catholic aid agencies having been using various counseling techniques, even a live clown and puppets, to help the Gaza Strip’s children overcome the trauma of lost loved ones and homes in the year since the cease-fire ended the conflict. But they warn that only a political solution can hope to remedy the increasingly desperate situation there.

A girl shares her drawing during a June 7 group activity at the Youth Empowerment Center in Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip. The program, designed to help children deal better with trauma and stress, is supported by Caritas Internationalis. (CNS photo | Paul Jeffrey)

“Almost everything we do as an international nongovernmental organization — and most peers would say the same — is like putting a Band-Aid on a pretty serious injury,” said Matthew McGarry, Catholic Relief Services’ country representative for Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza.

McGarry and other aid officials told Catholic News Service that the long-festering conflict between Israel and Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, has created a man-made humanitarian and psychosocial crisis that politics alone must solve.

“It’s cumulative. Children as young as 7 have lived through three wars in the past 7 years — that’s your lifetime,” McGarry told CNS of the psychological toll that Gaza’s multiple wars have taken on its youngest residents.

The U.N. estimates that at least 370,000 children in Gaza need psychosocial support following last summer’s war, which cost the lives of more than 2,250 Palestinians, 65 percent of whom were civilians. Sixty-six Israeli soldiers were killed, along with six civilians, it said, before the Aug. 26, 2014, cease-fire was reached.

But Catholic aid officials who regularly assess assistance on the ground called the U.N. estimate “low.” McGarry and Sami El-Yousef, regional director for Palestine and Israel for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, said everyone in the war-torn strip is traumatized and needs psychosocial support.

Still, Gaza’s youngest appear to bear the hardest and most-lasting consequences of the seven-week conflict, according to findings by Save the Children, based in the United Kingdom.

Three-quarters of Gaza’s children experience unusual bed-wetting regularly, while 89 percent of parents said that their children suffer constant feelings of fear, reported a study issued by the group in July.

More than 70 percent of children worry that another war will break out. Seven out of 10 children interviewed now suffer regular nightmares.

For the past year, CRS, CNEWA and Caritas have worked with local partners to tackle these problems.

“The program we designed was to reach mainly children, but not exclusively,” El-Yousef told CNS. CNEWA’s psychosocial support became its biggest program to aid post-conflict Gaza, helping more than 20,000 at some 30 schools and other community spaces.

“Some recreational activities were involved, but others needed deep psychological follow-up with specialized counselors, including the transfer to institutions qualified to handle severe cases on a one-on-one basis which were detected during the intervention,” El Yousef said.

A combination of group and individual counseling, puppets, play and art therapy has begun to show some signs of lessening the trauma.

“I was talking with a mother the other day about her 10-year-old daughter, who had been wetting the bed every night and had to be put on anti-anxiety medication by her doctor,” McGarry said.

The girl was enrolled into one of 17 child-friendly spaces CRS has set up in Gaza’s towns hardest hit by the bombardment. There, children draw and paint, play games and talk about their feelings.

Although she still wets her bed from time to time, it’s no longer a nightly occurrence, the mother told McGarry. The doctor has also lowered the medication dosage because he said “she is clearly making some progress.”

The CRS country representative recounted another case of a 12-year-old boy who was acting out violently and being overly aggressive at home.

“He had to be coaxed a bit to come to the child-friendly space and didn’t participate at first. But in time he became more active,” McGarry said. “His mother says he is now gentler and less antagonistic with his siblings. This is what we are looking for.”

CRS introduced puppets for the first time in Gaza as a way to encourage children to express their feelings, work through the trauma and adopt nonviolent conflict resolution practices. So far, 3,000 children have participated in such programs, and more opportunities are planned for them next year.

Caritas Jerusalem has expanded its help beyond psychological staff visits to families and schools. From July until October, Marco Rodari, an Italian clown therapist, is helping healing hearts in Gaza.

Experienced in working with traumatized and sick children, Rodari has created a special program for Gaza’s children.

First, he develops a relationship with kids through a comedy and magic show. Next, they become the clowns or magicians performing the tricks. The third aspect of the program will be the start of a “real school of magic” for the children.

Clown therapy enables the traumatized child to forget for a while the horrors experienced, to feel happy emotions and smile again, Rodari told Caritas.

Making theater brings out children’s emotions. While performing simple magic tricks, the child uses different parts of the body at the same time, thus activating several parts of the brain. Rodari said this promotes psychological healing and helps to replace “bad emotions and memories with happy, positive feelings and thoughts.”