GAZA - 5 April 2024

‘Many children find it easier to paint bad experiences than to talk about them’

Sixty-eight children from the SOS Children's Village Rafah in Gaza were successfully evacuated to Bethlehem in the West Bank in mid-March. Psychologist Mutaz Lubbad accompanied the children. In this interview, he talks about their psychological state and the help they need most urgently now.

Mr Lubbad, how are the children who were evacuated from Rafah?

After five months of war, they feel protected again for the first time. That is the most important thing at the moment: we have survived and are safe. But the children are very tired and need to recover from the war and the exhausting journey.

How do you support them?

We give them time and help them get a feel of their new surroundings. None of the children have ever left Gaza before. We take city tours, offer leisure activities, we play football. Yesterday, we had a magician's visit. And every day, we meet for mindfulness sessions. These are all things that help us to relax and settle in. In addition, targeted psychological support is also needed.

In the SOS Children's Village Rafah in Gaza, the children were looked after, but war and bombings were ever present there too. What did that do to their psyche?

The effects are diverse: fear, restlessness, sleep disorders, problems in socializing with others, developmental setbacks. Many of these things also affect them here in Bethlehem. One child came to me and said that he still couldn't sleep. Some still don't talk about their experiences at all, others simply can't play.

How do you react as a psychologist in these cases?

It's very individual. It is important to proceed gently and not to push the children.

Group therapy helps some, others need individual support. Art therapy is often a good approach: many children find it easier to paint bad experiences or their feelings than to talk about them. In Gaza, this was a very important approach for us.

What do you mean by that?

Every child in the SOS Children's Village in Rafah created a book: "My life story in Gaza", with texts, pictures, whatever they wanted. The children enjoyed working on the books and it helped them process their experiences. It was relieving for them to find a way to express their horror, pain and fear. The pictures and texts showed us how the children are feeling, what condition they are in, and how we can best support them.

We took all the books with us to Bethlehem.

The children's caregivers also travelled with them. How are they doing?

They are very challenged. The focus was on caring for the children and they tried to hold back their own feelings. But of course, they also went through a lot of anxiety. It is important that we also provide them with psychological support.

How long will it take for the children and adults to get over what they have experienced?

It can take anywhere from a few weeks to months or longer. But we are now in a good position: the basic needs have been met, which is an important basis for healing to take place.

The work of SOS Children's Villages in Gaza is continuing. Your colleagues there are supporting children and families. What kind of help is possible when there is a war going on at the same time?

At the SOS Children's Village in Rafah, we particularly support children who have lost their families in the war. Although most of them have suffered severe trauma, we see how their condition improves as they rest and receive care and psychological support. We also support families with psychological first aid. We show them simple techniques to help them relax, at least temporarily, and cope better with the stress. I think that's very important.

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