Their schools ruined, Gaza's children face long road to healing

Most kids in Gaza at the moment have brains that are functioning under trauma.

05 Apr 2024 12:36pm
A displaced Palestinian girl writes on a chalkboard as children look on  in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. Photo by Mohammed Abed/AFP
A displaced Palestinian girl writes on a chalkboard as children look on in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. Photo by Mohammed Abed/AFP

GAZA STRIP - Eight out of 10 schools in Gaza are damaged or destroyed, UNICEF says, but it is the psychological damage the war has done to the territory's nearly 1.2 million children that has experts really worried.

"To be able to learn, you need to be in a safe space. Most kids in Gaza at the moment have brains that are functioning under trauma," child psychiatrist Audrey McMahon of Doctors Without Borders told AFP.

Younger children could develop lifelong cognitive disabilities from malnutrition, while teenagers are likely to feel anger at the injustice they have suffered, she said.

"The challenges they will have to face are immense and will take a long time to heal."

David Skinner of Save The Children said rebuilding the "schools is massively complicated... but it's straightforward compared to the education loss".

"What's often lost about the coverage of Gaza is that this is a catastrophe for children.

"These are children who have been bereaved, who have lost people, who are sick and malnourished," he said.

- Cognitive damage -

Small children whose brains are still developing are particularly at risk from mental health and cognitive damage, Skinner said.

The UN child welfare agency estimates that 620,000 children in Gaza are out of school.

Skinner said getting them back into class and rebuilding their schools were only the first steps.

The true challenge will be healing displaced and traumatised young Gazans so that they can learn to learn again.

Fighting has ravaged Gaza since Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack resulted in 1,170 deaths in Israel, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Israel has responded with a relentless offensive against Hamas that has killed at least 33,037 Palestinians.

When the war broke out, schools immediately stopped classes and the majority were turned into shelters for families fleeing air strikes.

Nearly half of the Palestinian territory's population is under 18, and its education system was already struggling after five wars in 20 years.

- Destruction -

So far in this war at least 53 of Gaza's 563 school buildings have been destroyed, according to UNICEF.

More than eight out of 10 schools have been damaged and 67 percent took direct hits, according to a report by aid agencies including UNICEF based on satellite imagery and on-the-ground reporting.

"This is an unprecedented situation," said Juliette Touma of the UN Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA, which helps educate 300,000 Gazan children.

"Colleagues who have been here the longest remember maybe one school being hit" in previous conflicts, she said.

Majd Halawa didn't have to wait for the bombs to destroy his school in Gaza City to realise his dreams of becoming a lawyer would have to be put on hold.

Two weeks after the war began, the Israeli army gave him and his family three minutes to leave their apartment block in the north of Gaza.

"I left all my books, thinking it wouldn't take long to go back, but it didn't happen," the 16-year-old told AFP. Their home was flattened by an air strike.

Makeshift schools have been set up in tents in the southern city of Rafah, where half of the territory's population has now fled.

In one tent, Hiba Halaweh was teaching 30 children to learn to read their first words. "The children are happy to get back into it," said the teacher, who lacks even "textbooks and pens".

The Hamas-run education ministry plans 25,000 such temporary schools.

Elsewhere in the world, many children who have lived through wars never return to school.

In Iraq, six years after the government declared victory over the Islamic State group, tens of thousands are still out of school. Thousands of destroyed school buildings have yet to be rebuilt, according to the World Bank.

But for Majd, whose family managed to get him out to Canada, it is not just about having a school to go to again.

"No one can get over all the memories of what happened, not in 100 years." - AFP