Rawya's Children: Rawya Hamam, a Mental Health Professional, Describes to Peter Small How She Is Trying to Assist Gaza's Children Overcome Post Traumatic Stress Disorder before Their Suffering Puts Them beyond Help

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Surviving air strikes, sonic booms, exploding shells and small-arms fire is one thing--dealing with the psychological aftermath is another. A tall order for most adults. But for Gaza's children, who have little understanding of what post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is doing to them, it is an almost insurmountable task that insidiously robs them of a normal childhood.

Rawya Hamam does her best to meet increasing calls for help from distraught families because Rawya, 37, is a community mental health worker who specialises in dealing with traumatised families in Gaza. Married with four children, she lives and works in the north of Gaza with her husband Emad and her children Serena, 12, Dalia, nine, Hisham, six, and Mohamad, three. Rawya deals mainly with children showing symptoms of PTSD, offering counselling and therapy to them and their families. Yet compared to a psychiatric stress counsellor's job in a stable and peaceful country, the burden of Rawya's typical domestic and working day in blockaded Gaza, beggars belief.

Most of us can count on being able to sleep at night. But Rawya has no such luxury because getting any sleep depends on an erratic electricity schedule that can see her cooking the family meals at 3 a.m.--but even if that involves being up until three in the morning she will still get up at five o'clock to pray at dawn with her husband and older children.

By 6 a.m., Rawya's oldest three children need to be setting off for the UNRWA school in the beach camp of Gaza city. Rawya says that this time of day, waving goodbye to her children as they go to school, is difficult. "My husband and I stand at the door and hug and kiss each of our children, fearing we might never see them again".

Psychological stress

Their fear is a result of the December 2008 Israeli offensive into Gaza Strip: "The Israelis attacked at 11.25 in the morning on 27 December 2008," Rawya recalls. "It was when the early-class schoolchildren were returning home, with the later-class students setting off from home and the most horrible day I can imagine; I will never forget my children's faces which were full of terror." For Rawya, the streets of Gaza on that day looked how she would picture "the world's last day. All the parents screaming, searching for their children, black clouds darkening the sky above."

The constant air and ground attacks, the noise, air raids and exploding munitions imposed huge psychological stress not just on the children, but on their parents too. "It was a very hard time to be a mother or a father in Gaza," Rawya recounts. "We were unable to protect our children, or their basic rights to live, play, learn or to be treated if they were seriously ill."

After dropping off her three-year-old son Mohamad at kindergarten, Rawya gets to her office at around 8 a.m., where she meets up with her colleagues including psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and physiotherapists. Together with their team leader, they discuss case notes and distribute the work. After that, Rawya starts group counselling sessions, carries out visits to school and kindergartens or conducts one to one counselling. Her main role is dealing with children who have psychological problems arising from exposure to war.

Rawya explains, in professional terms, how children are the group worst affected by systematic violence because they are still developmentally immature and thus more easily damaged psychologically than adults.

The worst impacts, she says, on the psychological health of Gaza's children are caused by Israeli air and artillery strikes on Gaza, the blockade, the internal political factionalism, unemployment, a chronic socioeconomic situation, and child labour. …