Coughing as tear gas seeps into your home. Hearing bombs go off. Watching soldiers with guns walk by. These are hallmarks of childhood for Palestinians in the West Bank.
Children regularly witness the presence of military entering their communities and monitoring check points on local roads. But some events escalate tensions into violent clashes.
Last week, as the world reacted to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, the West Bank erupted in a wave of protests. Approximately 3,000 Palestinians protested at some 20 flash points across the West Bank. The presence of Israeli soldiers in Palestinian villages increased dramatically. Below are videos of resulting clashes in Al-Eizariya, recorded from the playground where young students play.
Soldiers walking to confront Palestinians protestors in Al-Eizariya in front of House of Hope playground
Sounds of tear gas and sound bombs as soldiers confront Palestinian protestors
Trauma Exposure for Palestinian Children in the West Bank
Armed conflict is profoundly damaging for children. For those who escape direct physical injury, the psychological wreckage can remain for a lifetime. Palestinian kids in the West Bank spend much of their childhood under the dark cloud of PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) from the surrounding conflict.
“It hurts to watch our students witness the soldiers in the streets, hearing the sounds of the bombs, breathing in the tear gas,” said Manar Wahhab Vosgueritichian, cofounder of House of Hope. “This circle of violence that never ends gets bigger and the real victims of this are kids. This is not a promising future for them.”
PTSD is defined by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs as “a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault.” While many sources of trauma are physically violent in nature, others are psychological- like threats of violence or abusive speech. A lot of different factors determine if a child develops PTSD in reaction to their lived experiences, such as previous traumatic exposure, what happens after the exposure, stress and social support.
A 2009 study in International Journal of Mental Health Systems, “Trauma-related psychological disorders among Palestinian children and adults in Gaza and West Bank, 2005-2008” found high rates of PTSD in children under the age of 15 who witnessed violence or threats of violence resulting from the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Among 1254 patients interviewed, 23.2% reported PTSD, 17.3% anxiety disorder (other than PTSD or acute stress disorder), and 15.3% depression. PTSD was more frequently identified in children, while depression was the main symptom observed in adults.
PTSD: The Invisible Wreckage
For many House of Hope students, repeated exposure to the persistent negative effects of living amidst the Israeli- Palestinian conflict causes PTSD symptoms. These symptoms, according to the American Psychiatric Association, fall into four categories that vary in severity. Two key PTSD symptoms include intrusive thoughts such as repeated, involuntary memories and avoiding people, places, activities, objects and situations that remind them of the trauma.
Other symptoms that can directly impact emotional development, academic achievement and likelihood to become violent include:
- Negative thoughts and feelings that may include ongoing and distorted beliefs about oneself or others (e.g., “I am bad,” “No one can be trusted”); ongoing fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame; much less interest in activities previously enjoyed; or feeling detached or estranged from others.
- Arousal and reactive symptoms such being irritable and having angry outbursts; behaving recklessly or in a self-destructive way; being easily startled; or having problems concentrating or sleeping.
As children with PTSD get older, their symptoms are more like those of adults. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs gives gives the following examples of PTSD symptoms in children:
- Children under 6 may get upset if their parents are not close by, have trouble sleeping, or act out the trauma through play.
- Children age 7 to 11 may also act out the trauma through play, drawings, or stories. Some have nightmares or become more irritable or aggressive. They may also want to avoid school or have trouble with schoolwork or friends.
- Children age 12 to 18 have symptoms more similar to adults: depression, anxiety, withdrawal, or reckless behavior like substance abuse or running away.
Healing PTSD with Therapeutic Learning Environments
House of Hope’s trauma-informed elementary school supports young children experiencing cyclical regional violence and household poverty. House of Hope students learn healthy skills for coping with violence and injustice, such as art and music expression, therapeutic body movement and other self esteem affirming activities.
Students also learn coping skills like Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a communication process that gives students the skills to:
- understand what triggers them
- take responsibility for their reactions
- deepen their connection with themselves and others
- transform their habitual or emerging responses to the injustices they experience
In the coming years, House of Hope also aspires to be the first Waldorf school in the West Bank. Waldorf classrooms are known for personalizing learning with gentle warmth and thoughtful sensory stimulation. This therapeutic setting is particularly helpful for children with trauma from war or conflict, like many of the young students of House of Hope.
For children who live in the cross hairs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, PTSD is a common response to the traumatic events unfolding around them. However, PTSD interventions work, especially when the support provided by school environments is optimized.