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Parents In Gaza And Israel Are Doing Their Best To Shield Kids From The Trauma Of War

BEIRUT — In this month's escalation of violence, as Hamas fired rockets into Israel and the Israeli military pounded the Gaza Strip with airstrikes and artillery, parents on both sides have had to find ways to try and protect their children from the trauma of war and soothe them when they're terrified.

In the Gaza Strip, "Mothers tell me their children are frightened of bedtime because the worst airstrikes come at night," says Suhair Zakkout, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross who lives in Gaza. "Other parents tell me their sons and daughters now know how differentiate between airstrikes, missiles and other weapons. This is a language that should not be for children."

In Sderot, an Israeli city on the border with the Gaza Strip, Noa Asher Berkeley, the mother of an 8-year-old boy and 6-year-old girl, tells NPR the family has adapted their home's bomb shelter to serve as the children's bedroom.

"That's where they sleep all the time," she says.

Less than a mile from the Gaza border, Sderot has for years been a frequent target of Hamas rocket attacks. Berkeley says her children have grown up knowing how to get to a bomb shelter in as little as 15 seconds.

Israeli mother Lia Tal rushes with her children and partner to take shelter as a siren sounds a warning of incoming rockets fired from the Gaza Strip in Ashdod, Israel, on May 20.
Heidi Levine / AP
Israeli mother Lia Tal rushes with her children and partner to take shelter as a siren sounds a warning of incoming rockets fired from the Gaza Strip in Ashdod, Israel, on May 20.

When Hamas began firing rockets into Israel on May 10, Berkeley says the air raid sirens went off more than 20 times that first night.

"It was a terrible night," she says. The family spent it together in the bomb shelter which has become the children's bedroom.

When Berkeley's son needed to use the toilet, they waited for a break in the shelling before sprinting to the bathroom. "I held his hand the whole time," she says.

Berkeley sees the fear and trauma the rocket attacks cause her children. "My youngest, she shakes a lot. She wouldn't be able to stop shaking till like 10, 15, 20 minutes after an air raid siren," she says. "They're scared. Every sound, every noise that they hear, they jump."

Over the years, Berkeley has developed strategies to help her children cope. There's the red box — a special toy box the children are only allowed to open when they're sheltering from a rocket attack, full of puzzles and coloring books. And there are bubbles — because blowing them helps the children take long breaths, which also helps calm them.

She tries very hard not to let them hear the news.

Israel's Iron Dome defense system stops most of the rockets fired by Hamas. But some do get through. The Israeli government says two children in Israel died in this most recent escalation of violence, and 60 were wounded from Hamas rockets.

In Gaza — where there is no such defense system and few residents have bomb shelters — local officials say 65 children have been killed and another 540 injured in the Israeli military's 11-day offensive.

Children walk among the rubble of a building that was destroyed by an airstrike in Magazzi, the Gaza Strip.
John Minchillo / AP
Children walk among the rubble of a building that was destroyed by an airstrike in Magazzi, the Gaza Strip.

Israel says its strikes were aimed at Hamas targets and tunnels. But the United Nations says hundreds of homes and commercial buildings were destroyed, and six hospitals and 53 educational facilities were damaged.

The U.N. says more than 58,000 Palestinians have been displaced from their homes, many taking refuge in school buildings.

Jamileh Tawfiq, a photographer in Gaza, captured the terror her nieces and nephews felt during these strikes in short videos she shares with NPR. One video shows her lying on a bed in near-total darkness, hugging her 3-year-old niece Julia, who tells her she's scared of the explosions outside.

"Don't worry," Tawfiq whispers to her. "Don't worry."

Another video shows 2-year-old Shams in Tawfiq's living room, screaming in terror as an explosion shakes their building.

Speaking with NPR by phone last week as loud explosions from nearby airstrikes punctuated the conversation, Tawfiq explained that her brother and his three children, who live on a higher floor in the same building, were spending the nights in her apartment, which is on a lower floor.

With every bomb, Tawfiq called the children to come and sit beside her. She played coloring games with them to distract them. She tried to comfort her brother's 5-year-old daughter Layanne by reassuring her this would all end soon.

"I told her, you're going to go to the kindergarten and you're going to see your friends," she said.

Asma Kaisi, a single mother in Gaza City of three girls and a boy, all under the age of 11, tells NPR about the "hell" of the Israeli onslaught and one night in particular: "The sounds of explosions were unbelievably loud," she says. "I mean, my whole building would be shaking."

She and her children crawled from the bedroom to the living room to hide under a table.

"My oldest was crying hysterically. She was like, do you promise that we won't die?" she says. "I told her, 'I do promise. We're going to be safe.' And deep down, I knew that we might be the next victims."

Huddled together under the table, hugging each other fiercely in the dark as the bombs fell, Kaisi says her youngest daughter, 7-year-old Mira, spoke her first words in days:

"Mommy," she said, "does it hurt when you die?"

Kaisi, who is trained in dealing with trauma from past work with UNICEF, encourages her children to express themselves by writing letters to people they love or drawing.

She also tries to distract them by getting them involved in cooking. And they play a card game her eldest daughter invented. Like Berkeley, who uses bubbles to slow her children's breath, Kaisi tries to calm her children with breathing exercises.

Even so, it's impossible to shelter them from the psychological impact. Mira fell silent during the worst of the Israeli offensive. Kaisi says when airstrikes hit, she could feel her daughter shivering in terror, but she'd stopped speaking. Mira has started to talk again — but now with a stutter she didn't have before.

And 5-year-old Ward keeps smelling his mom's hair and kissing her face.

"When I asked him, like, why are you doing this, guess what he said?" Kaisi asks. "He told me that 'because if we go to God, I don't want to forget how you smell.' "

It made her weep. "That just broke my heart," she says. "It really did." Ward wiped away a tear from her face.

Last Friday, the day after a cease-fire was put in place, Kaisi and her children went out for the first time in 12 days. It was a moment of excitement — followed by sadness, when they saw the devastation the offensive had caused.

Some of the roads in their neighborhood are impassable for the craters caused by airstrikes. Entire high-rise apartment buildings are demolished. Kaisi says her children's school has been destroyed.

"They were devastated," she says. "Yes, the cease-fire has been enforced. But how are we going to deal with children traumatized by this? All this is another journey and another story."

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Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.