Crushed childhoods; cruel choices [Archives:2008/1144/Opinion]

April 7 2008

Rania Al Abdullah
Ayman is a soft-spoken 14-year old boy from Jabalia City, Gaza. His family is poor, as his father has been unemployed since March 2006. Ayman's parents have already sold almost all their furniture to pay for food and schooling for their children. Recently, after collecting a governmental food handout, Ayman's father had to sell the milk to get the money for the journey back home.

Ayman works very hard in school. He dreams of a future career. But with 47 students in his cramped classroom and double shifts the norm, his learning environment is very stressful. Home is no refuge: The recent incursion of Jabalia was 200 meters from where Ayman lives. The shooting and shelling so terrorized his 5-year old sister that she still wakes up screaming in the night.

Ayman's experience is all too familiar in Gaza's crowded, crippled neighborhoods, where those who are least to blame for the troubles are the ones who are suffering most. Indeed, among Gaza's 840,000 children, out of which 588,000 are refugees, Ayman has a luckier story than many. Since the recent escalation of violence that began last month, at least 33 Palestinian boys and girls have been killed and many more injured or maimed – caught in the crossfire, shot in their living rooms, struck by explosions in their own backyards. On February 28, four children playing soccer were hit by a missile, which dismembered them so completely their own families could not identify their bodies.

Ayman, his siblings, and all Gaza's children are finding their lives diminished each day – a cruel, slow suffocation of their spirit and their dreams. Instead of enjoying expanding horizons, they are trapped in a virtual prison, where things every child should be able to take for granted are being taken away instead. The right to play. To go to school. To have enough to eat. To have a light to study by at night. To feel safe in their own homes. The weight of one of the world's longest conflicts is resting on their thin shoulders, crushing their childhood and inflicting psychological scars that may never heal.

Palestinians were once reputed as being among the best educated in the Middle East; today, after years of violence, closure, and poverty, their proud tradition of educational excellence has been shattered. Almost 2,000 children in Gaza have dropped out of school in the last five months. Those that remain must share tattered textbooks and do without crucial resources. The January 2008 semester exams at UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) schools in Gaza found fifty to sixty per cent failure rates in mathematics, and forty per cent failure rate in Arabic – the children's native language. Despite this, Ayman insists, “I want to be an educated person. I want to be an engineer to build my country.”

On Palestinian Child Day, let the world recall, Gaza's crisis is a manmade disaster. And let the world take note, things are worse today than at any time since the occupation began. Seventy-nine percent of Gaza's households live in poverty; eight out of ten depend on food assistance. Almost half the labor force is unemployed; local industry has collapsed. Water and sewage systems are failing; garbage is piling up in the streets.

UNICEF is working around the clock to restore a sense of normalcy for Gaza's youth – developing remedial worksheets to help children keep up with their studies; creating sports and recreation programs in schools; and working with communities to establish play areas where kids can be kids in safety. UNICEF works with partners to get water, hygiene, and medical supplies to households and health facilities. And UNICEF-supported counseling teams are spread across the area, helping Palestinian parents and children cope with the burden of stress.

But if UNICEF is doing all it can to comfort those in the midst of Gaza's madness, political leaders are the only ones who can bring the dreadful nightmare to an end. It is time for new engagement. The siege must be lifted. The killing of civilians has to stop, on both sides. Children deserve to grow up in peace, on both sides. And leaders on both sides, supported by the international community, must join in the kind of honest dialogue that is the only viable path toward lasting peace.

Ayman's father quietly says, “My children are my hope.” The children of Gaza are a light in the darkness. They deserve a chance to shine.

Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is UNICEF Eminent Advocate for Children.