Gaza’s Crushed Childhoods

AMMAN -- Ayman is a soft-spoken 14-year-old boy in Jabalia City, Gaza. His family is poor, and his parents have already sold almost all their furniture to pay for food and schooling for their children. Recently, after collecting a government food handout, Ayman’s father, who has been unemployed since March 2006, had to sell the milk to pay for the journey back home.

Ayman works very hard in school and 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 into Jabalia was 200 meters from where Ayman lives. The shooting and shelling so terrorized his five-year-old sister that she still wakes up screaming at 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 suffering the most. Indeed, among Gaza’s 840,000 children – of which 588,000 are refugees – Ayman’s story is luckier 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, or 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 that every child should be able to take for granted are instead being taken away: the right to play, to go to school, to have enough to eat, to have light to study by at night, and to feel safe in their own homes. The weight of one of the world’s longest-running conflicts is resting on their thin shoulders, crushing their childhood and inflicting psychological scars that may never heal.