GAZA - 25 March 2024

"The children knew: When we say, 'It's time to go!', it's time to go."

Amidst the conflict, SOS Children's Villages evacuated 68 children, staff, and their families from the SOS Children's Village in Rafah, southern Gaza. In this interview, Samy Ajjour, programme director of the SOS Children's Village in Rafah, speaks about the evacuation and how the children are doing since their arrival to Bethlehem.

Interview by Simone Kosog

You have five months of war, fear, worry, and displacement behind you. Now, 68 children as well as staff and their families have been successfully evacuated to Bethlehem. Are you relieved?

We are all happy and relieved. We’ve been warmly welcomed here in Bethlehem by colleagues and the entire SOS Children's Village. We are in a reasonably safe place, able to sleep without the sound of bombs. We are doing better. But the children need time to adjust. They have left their homes and still feel like strangers.

Had the children ever been outside of Gaza before?

No, never. They boarded a bus for the first time in their lives, held a passport for the first time, and stayed in a hotel for the first time.

Now they need to understand where they have landed.

To avoid endangering the evacuation, it was kept secret for a long time. Did the children even have the opportunity to prepare?

We briefed them step by step. They knew about a month in advance that an exit was planned, but no details. There were discussions with psychologists. The children knew: when we say, ‘It's time to go’ then it's time to go. Sometime before the evacuation, we started packing our bags - very calmly and as inconspicuously as possible.

What was the moment like when they actually left?

Exciting, there were many emotions at play. There was euphoria and joy, but there were also tears. It's not easy to leave your homeland, not even for the staff and caregivers. But everything worked out, and we were able to support the children well. It was very helpful that they were traveling with their friends and trusted caregivers and that they were psychologically supported.

What is happening now in Bethlehem?

We are organizing activities; today there was a soccer game with the children from the SOS Children's Village. The children are getting to know the city and have already been medically examined. But they also need rest and have a lot to process. Even though in Rafah we tried to distract them from the war as much as possible, there was a lot of fear and stress. Bombs were constantly heard, they couldn't leave the property, couldn't go to school.

Next, we will work on setting up apartments for the families.

Where are they currently staying?

In transitional housing. We couldn't prepare anything. The plan is for some of them to move into vacant buildings in the SOS Children's Village Bethlehem. We are in the process of preparing them. For the others, we have found apartments in the city. They will also live in a house together with SOS Children’s Villages’ families from Bethlehem, which makes me very happy. The local families help them to settle in. We hope that the families can move in by the end of Ramadan.

When will the children go back to school?

From the next school year. We are currently coordinating the details with the Ministry of Education. Until then, we are organizing classes for them so they can catch up on the long break and be well prepared. They are entering a different education system here.

Many of the children still have relatives in Gaza. Is it possible to stay in touch with them?

Yes, that is very important to us. We try to organize daily online meetings between the children and their relatives. When people in Gaza see the children on the screen and hear that they are safe and happy, a smile spreads across their faces.

But the meetings are also important for the children. They are a link to their homeland and familiar people. We are only temporarily in Bethlehem and want to return home as soon as possible.

What happens now at the SOS Children's Village Rafah, now that you are gone?

Intensive assistance will continue there. We are the only organization in all of Gaza that provides protection and care for children who have lost their families in the war. Even former residents who grew up in the SOS Children's Village have found refuge there. The SOS Children's Village continues to be a humanitarian site that must be protected under all circumstances. Our colleagues also provide emergency assistance to families. They support them with cash payments and psychological help, among other things.

How are you personally? Have you had time to catch your breath?

The most important thing now was to ensure that the children are well taken care of, as well as my family, who also came with me and have been through a lot. When the war started, we had to leave our house in Gaza City in a hurry. We couldn't take anything; I left all my clothes, everything I had. We then spent the last five months in the SOS Children's Village and now must find our way again. But we will manage; we have support, which feels good.


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