“I was really terrified during the war, but here at the summer fun weeks I am not. I love drawing the most. I want to draw everything. I will be very sad when the activities are over. I wish I could join for more than one week”.
Jana, 9-year-old participant.
For four weeks from 4 July, 150,000 children from across the Gaza Strip participated in UNRWA’s summer camps, which offered sports, arts and group activities. The overall objective was to provide fun for children, alleviate stress, boost mental and physical health, and promote positive coping mechanisms in a safe environment. The activities, many of which were led by psychosocial counsellors, also served as referral mechanisms in case a child required further psychosocial support and follow-up.
Gaza’s children, bear the brunt of the deteriorating humanitarian situation and their childhood has been mired by escalations and the Covid-19 pandemic. These recreational activities provide much-needed respite. The May escalation, resulted in the death of some 66 children and injury of another 685, some of whom will suffer a long-term disability.
Although causalities were fewer than those of the 2014 escalation, the intensity of the bombardment in overcrowded urban centres was unprecedented. According to a leading Gaza-based psychiatrist, the psychological impact will exacerbate an already aggravated mental health crisis.
UNICEF reports that some 675,600 children, or 75 per cent of all children in Gaza (895,487), are in need of Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) and community- and family-based MHPSS services. Children are particularly vulnerable, experiencing high rates of mental distress, including significant risks of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, behavioural problems, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and functional impairment.
The capacity to respond to the increased need is severely limited and was adversely affected by major shortages in specialised personnel and drugs, even prior to the May escalation. In Gaza, there are currently only 92 trained Psychosocial Support counsellors. This is about 7,350 children per counsellor, nowhere near meeting current needs.
According to UNRWA Commissioner-General, Philippe Lazzarini, “to be a child in Gaza today means that you have inevitably witnessed a level of trauma that your peers elsewhere in the world have not. Therefore, psychosocial support is one of the main priorities of UNRWA in Gaza after the latest conflict.” Dr. Iyad Zaqout, Head of UNRWA’s Education Programme, stresses that MHPSS activities are required throughout the school year.
In 2018, UNRWA faced the greatest financial predicament in its history, with the abrupt end to funding by the United States, its largest donor. Since then, UNRWA has existed in a increasingly precarious funding situation. MHPSS programmes were amongst the worst affected. Despite the resumption of US funding, the ongoing financial crisis, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, has resulted in a reduction in the scope of summer activities, including a 50 per cent drop in the number of children that could be included in such activities.
“It is a major problem when something as important and fundamental for the wellbeing of Gaza’s children as MHPSS activities depends on this kind of funding,” explains Dr. Zaqout. “The psychosocial situation is not only attributed to the escalation. It’s rather an accumulation of many factors. The treatment requires keeping in touch and following-up the cases, to increase the patient’s resilience. If we leave people alone, they will suffer again. The funding should not be available only during or after an emergency, rather all the MHPSS services should be scaled up.”
 Abu Jamei, Y. 4 June 2021, A New Mental Health Crisis is Raging in Gaza, Scientific American.
 UNICEF, Protection Analysis Update, July 2021