In 1992, ERM (Enfants Réfugies du Monde)set up a coordination center for children in the refugee camp of Khan Younnis in the Gaza Strip, in partnership with five women's committees. The objective was to take overall responsibility for children's psycho-social problems, which obviously entailed working closely with them. The magnitude of the work to be done with the mothers and their children can be illustrated by two examples.
Convinced of the educational and psychological usefulness of drawing, we set up a drawing and painting workshop at the coordination center. The objective was to permit children to express what they live through, encourage their imagination, and promote their social integration by getting them manage the workshop themselves. This was also a way for the female coordinators to understand the children better on the basis of their drawings.
This workshop was a remarkable opportunity for observation and it resulted in surprises. From the moment it opened, it was used well beyond our expectations. We knew that children drew what they wanted to say, to give vent to their feelings, but we did not think that they would have divested themselves of their adult shells.
For three months, the children drew and painted flags, mosques, and rifles decorated with political slogans. What they communicated and expressed very often dealt with their political beliefs.
After discussions, taking stock and case studies, the team allowed this type of expression to continue, carefully monitoring its progression and fluctuations. This was an essential step in order to go further. Grown familiar with drawing, the coordinators then set about carrying out short, periodic and structured activities, encouraging more types of drawing. This led to more varied and happier subjects.
Many children continued to come, more open to the pleasure of drawing new subjects. The guns and slogans gave way to poetic and even humanitarian drawings.
The coordinators unceasingly repeated this work, since whenever the situation deteriorated, the children returned to their initial warlike subjects to express their fear before rediscovering that they could express themselves more freely. This work of adaptation and tolerance was difficult for trained teachers and it was even more so for the mothers.
Continuing to live
The story of Sherin highlights this difficulty. Sherin is a calm and affectionate little girl of nine. Her elder brother was killed during a skirmish, and his body was brought back to her parents. When she returned to school, she saw her brother's body and began to scream that there was blood on the walls. The following day at the center, she drew her brother's body, smearing the page blood red.
"Sherin is not too affected, she's young, she'll forget", confided her mother several days later. Her teacher noticed a change in her behavior. Sherin had become quieter, as if absent. However, little by little, by participating in the activities, she rediscovered the joy of living. Her mother couldn't stand it, "She can't be happy, she has to think of her brother's death". This led to long and patient work with the mother so that she could accept that her surviving child continued to live, without refusing reality.
Although it was possible to set up the program, expand it and make it last, it was mostly due to our mostly female partners, the women's committees, not forgetting the teachers and mothers. Today, our experience in the Gaza Strip has allowed us to go on to another phase of development, still in the framework of children's psychosocial needs, in the form of the Can'an Institute, a center for informal education using new teaching methods.