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Suha Namrwouty, 6, learns letters and sounds from Ifidal Abu Madil at Al Shroq Wal Amal Children's Center in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, in this 2004 photo. The center is supported by MCC's Global Family education sponsorship program. Ryan Beiler

Suha Namrwouty, 6, learns letters and sounds from Ifidal Abu Madil at Al Shroq Wal Amal Children's Center in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, in this 2004 photo. The center is supported by MCC's Global Family education sponsorship program. Ryan Beiler

Life far from normal for families in Gaza

Gladys Terichow
February 19, 2009

Deaths and injuries inflicted by the 22-day war in the Gaza Strip, along with destruction of homes, schools and infrastructure, are taking a toll on families in the Palestinian territory.

"The war is over but the suffering has not stopped," said Majeda Al Saqqa, program director for the Culture and Free Thought Association (CFTA), a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) partner organization that provides cultural, health and educational programs for children, youth and women.

Children, she explained, have been emotionally traumatized by the deaths of family members, classmates and friends. Some of the children have been physically hurt or have lost their homes and belongings.

Schools are offering classes again but many educational facilities were destroyed during the war or used as shelters. Some schools have opened classrooms in tents near the rubble of the damaged buildings.

"Our children want to live a normal life," said Al Saqqa. "We want them to be healthy and strong. This is our hope."

The war and its aftermath follow months of insecurity and skyrocketing unemployment and poverty resulting from Israel's economic blockade. Although the war is over, the economic blockade remains in place.

Heather Lehman, an MCC Jerusalem representative from Boswell, Pa., is a former teacher and children's behavioral health specialist. Lehman said she shares Al Saqqa's concerns that more must be done to address the emotional and psychological effects of the violence among children.

"It is important to recognize that the children of Gaza have experienced an exceptionally high level of violence for a prolonged period of time," said Lehman. "To live in an environment of fear, chaos and violence can ultimately lead to a sense of hopelessness."

Children, she said, are tomorrow's leaders and the actions of today will influence their outlook on the world and their personal values.

In partnership with MCC's Global Family education sponsorship program, CFTA is expanding its programs to include a "Child to Child" program in the Khan Younis refugee camp. Activities include leadership training for children, remedial classes, field trips, creative writing, drama, arts and handcrafts and community outreach.

Khan Younis refugee camp was established in 1949 and now has a population of 180,000 people; about 50 percent are children. About 5,000 children will benefit from this new program funded through the Global Family program, which supports more than 100 community-based education partner organizations in 41 countries through monthly sponsorship gifts of $25. Fifty new sponsors are needed for the Child to Child program in Gaza.

This new Global Family project builds on the success of another Global Family project in the Khan Younis refugee camp, the Al Shroq Wal Amal Children Center (Sunrise and Hope). CFTA opened this center in April 1992 and offers an innovative program of activities, trips, summer camps and projects for children in a safe and supportive environment. MCC's Global Family program has been supporting this center since April 2004.

MCC also supports families in Gaza through the distribution of humanitarian aid. CFTA is one of three MCC partner organizations that distribute this assistance.

"People who have lost their homes have lost everything," said Al Saqqa. "They need food, medicine, clothes, shoes and mattresses. Everything has been destroyed. Any help is appreciated. Any help at all."

A shipment of 3,910 blankets and 1,260 relief kits is expected to arrive in Gaza in March. This shipment, along with recent grants for food, urgently needed supplies and trauma healing for children, brings the monetary value of MCC's humanitarian response in Gaza in 2008 and 2009 to about $360,000.

In addition to financial and humanitarian assistance, MCC is increasing its efforts to advocate for peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians. MCC believes that sustainable peace can only be achieved if all parties engage in political negotiations to address the issues that divide them.

MCC has worked alongside Palestinians for nearly 60 years and Israelis for nearly 40 years. MCC's Palestinian and Israeli partners are committed to nonviolence and a future of peace, justice and reconciliation for both peoples.