Standing outside a youth centre in the north of Gaza, Mohammed, a confident 12-year-old,says he works hard at sciences in school and has big dreams: “I want to be an astronaut, I want to be the first astronaut from Gaza.”
For children in the war-ravaged region, imaginations remain intact. But 100 days after the seven-week offensive launched by Israel in which homes were reduced to rubble, entire families killed - 89 in the recent offensive - and schools destroyed, achieving those dreams has become a separate battle in itself.
The situation is desperate. Around half of Gaza’s population of 1.8 million are under the age of 18 - and though 500,000 children are back at school that means hundreds of thousands are without education. Thirty thousand children were displaced by the fighting. The seemingly constant cycle of violence means that any child over seven has now lived through three wars.
But amid the destruction, children still want to play - and they want to learn.
According to the UN, the summer conflict left more than 250 schools damaged, 26 beyond repair. Parents and school teachers say they can all see the toll the violence is taking on Gaza's children.
“For 51 days, friends and family of the children were killed, homes around them destroyed, no place was safe,” says Abu Sherif, a head teacher. “We are lucky they have come to help us”.
He is referring to members of Hope and Play, a British charity set up by two Oxford graduates that aims to alleviate the trauma inflicted on children in the area by the conflict.
The men and women - dressed in colourful bear suits - enter the classroom and work hard to transform the mood, banging drums and playing music to the students.
“The children are heavily traumatised by what has happened. These activities are designed to ease them back into education,” says Zaher Hania, one of Hope and Play’s “animators”.
The team visits three or four locations every day, spending two hours in each one. After lunch, they go to a youth centre in the village of Zanna, in the southern Gaza Strip. Hundreds of children are gathered in an opening surrounded by apocalyptic piles of rubble, where houses once stood. In the distance is the concrete wall and razorwire that separates Gaza from Israel, and a watchtower for the latter to monitor the border.
But the games go on amid the debris; laughter echoing through the rubble, they leap under colorful parachutes.
“By playing here, in the middle of the destruction, it helps the kids process what has happened,” says Tareq Ramdan, another animator. “It diminishes their fear.”
The charity’s visits are part of an emergency trauma scheme funded with money raised by Hope and Play and their predominately British donors. Its programmes are implemented by the Canaan Institute, a leading educational body in Gaza that has trained thousands of NGO workers across the Strip, and is designed to give children a break from the mental pain and suffering inflicted by the violence.
While these emergency trauma programs are crucial at the moment following the recent escalation, Hope and Play's trustees are hoping for a complete end to the violence so that they can resume fundraising and financing their long-term education programme.
“The vast majority of Palestinians are remarkably tolerant, moderate and open-minded. It's vital we keep those values alive in young Gazans if we want to see peace in the Middle East,” Saskia Marsh, Hope and Play's trustee, says.
“Providing Gaza’s kids with learning and enjoyment, fostering open mindsets and lessening the psychological impact of ongoing conflict is vital to improving their chances of having a healthy and happy childhood,” adds fellow trustee Iyas Al Qasem. “This will also help lay the foundation for a balanced and productive adulthood. We are doing no more than helping them have some of their basic human rights.”
Unfortunately, despite the severity of the situation, in recent years many of the charities have lost much of their funding. Since Hamas, a group labelled a terrorist organisation by most Western countries, took power in 2007, donors have become wary of sending funds to Gaza. This has had a crippling effect on the well-being of Gaza civilians.
“There are countless organisations that work completely independently and are dedicated to bringing a better life to the innocent children in Gaza," says Saskia.“Our urgent projects to relieve child trauma rely on the ability of people across the world to recognise this”.
Despite the lack of funding and continued cycles of war, the resilience of the youth in Gaza is astounding. The Independent met some children who had travelled to the local music school under heavy shelling in order to practice in preparation for a regional competition in Beirut. At a breakdance centre, children from the refugee camp come together daily to practice and dream of visiting competitions around the world and at the beach teenagers surf the local waves to get away from the city struggles.
“Gaza's children are no different from children elsewhere the world over - they simply try their best to lead normal lives." says Iyas.
Back at the youth centre in the north, Gaza’s premier wannabe-astronaut says he is looking forward to starting school again: “This is the first fun we have had since the war stopped, it allows us to forget everything which has happened.”
Standing near him, Zaher Hania smiles. She says: “This is why we do these activities, why we do our work. We want to give them hope that anything is possible. We want them to see peace as the solution and that it is peace which will bring them a future and allow them to realise their dreams.”
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