I heard about an organization called Cooperazione Internazionale Sud Sud (CISS) that recently started working in Gaza. CISS is an Italian non-governmental organization that is officially recognized by the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs as an organization qualified to promote and carry out projects of cooperation in developing countries.
In Gaza, CISS partners with Sharek Youth Forum and Gaza Mental Health Programme. CISS does work similar to that of the Assri Center in Jabalia Camp, except they have a more direct approach in dealing with the psychological problems of the children of Gaza. This definitely caught my attention because I was interested in seeing what approaches were taken in treating the children. After hearing about CISS, all that was going through my head was “where do I sign up?”
After making some phone calls, Mariam and I were offered an interview with Valeria Moro, the CISS Representative for Palestine. We both were very excited and made our way to the Abu Ghalion tower near the Gaza Port for our interview. At the end of the interview we had already planned with Ms. Moro to go on a tour of CISS’ Beit Lahia Center. If we liked what we saw, we could make an official schedule.
After getting ready for our tour day, Mariam and I waited in front of our apartment tower waiting for a taxi. Even though it was only 8:30 a.m., I could tell it was going to be a hot day. I tried to forget the heat – I am from Texas – and think about the kids I was going to meet. We made our way to the CISS office in the Abu Ghalion Tower, where we met up with Yousef Hamdoneh, a CISS representative who was going to take us to the CISS Beit Lahia Center. Beit Lahia is a city north of Jabalia and is about a 20-minute ride from Gaza City, which to me isn’t a lot considering you need at least a 10-minute ride to get anywhere in Richardson. However, according to Gaza’s standards, a 20-minute ride is pretty far.
As we made our way out of Gaza City and into Beit Lahia, I began to notice the signs of war I initially was expecting to see in Gaza City. Apparently, since Beit Lahia is so close to the Israeli border, during the 2008-09 Gaza War they had been invaded by the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). So the homes in Beit Lahia were most prone to damage by guns and tanks. The homes were filled with holes, which began to worry me. Most places I had been in Gaza had minimal signs of damage, and yet the children were still greatly affected. I could only imagine the problems the children of Beit Lahia had.
Finally, Mariam and I reached the center, which was not immune to the attacks of the IDF tanks. Our tour began with a short meeting with the psychologist who works at this center, Dr. Abdelhamid Kinari. Dr. Kinari gave us a brief background about what goes on at the center and gave us an idea of what happens on a typical day there. Dr. Kinari then led us to a room to witness for ourselves a treatment session.
We walked into a session for a group of 14- to 17-year-old boys. We did not get as warm of a welcome from those boys as we did from the young children of the Assri. I assume that was more or less because these individuals are teenagers rather than kids. It was time for their psychodrama session where they were to tell stories about things that happened to them during the war. Then as a group they were to pick one story and act it out.
This exercise was meant to help them accept the past, but also forget it once they were done. The only problem was none of the teenagers wanted to say a memory. After about two minutes of silence, Dr. Kinari leaned over to Mariam and I and said, “They must be shy. Don’t worry, soon they will open up.”
For that reason, Mariam wanted the teenagers to feel like we were their friends rather than invaders of their personal session and volunteered to say her memory of the first time hearing an F-16 breaking the sound barrier in 2006 when we last visited Gaza. Once they realized that we also understood to some degree the fear they lived through, considering how in Richardson you rarely ever hear an ambulance, let alone an F-16, they began opening up.
One boy spoke about the day his family got a notice in the middle of the night from the IDF that their house would be attacked in five minutes. Five minutes was all the time they had to evacuate the 40 family members who were taking refuge in his home. Another boy spoke about how he saw an apache bomb hit his cousin in the bathroom of their school.
As the teenagers one by one began to open up, everyone began to feel like family, and I am now looking forward to all our future meetings.