Troubling times for Palestinian children increase demand for mental health support

By Aseel Baidoun, MAP’s Advocacy Officer in the West Bank

I was born and raised in East Jerusalem. After school, I travelled to Lebanon to pursue my bachelor's degree. It wasn’t until I moved to Sweden to study for a masters that I came to understand the anger I have been living with most of my life. I finally had the chance to live in a country where I was not discriminated against, the opportunity to reflect how growing up in East Jerusalem and witnessing life for Palestinians in Lebanon had impacted my mental health.

In Jerusalem, I lived in constant fear of being killed, detained or losing my family. There are Israeli soldiers on every street, watching, waiting for the smallest “suspicious move” to shoot you. The recent killing of Eyad Hallaq is not exceptional: he was the second Palestinian killed by Israeli forces in East Jerusalem since the start of the year and the 17th Palestinian killed in Palestine during  2020.

We are 370,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, and we are all treated as guilty until proven otherwise. Our homes are under the constant threat of being demolished, our Jerusalem residency is under constant threat of being revoked. The Israeli Government’s threat to annex more Palestinian land looms further over our dignity and would have a particularly devastating effect on the wellbeing of youth. Growing up in a city where you are constantly discriminated against impacted my self-esteem, self-image and identity.

“I wish I had been part of Saraya when I was an adolescent.”

I am grateful that I am now part of the MAP team. Our partner, the Saraya Centre, provides a range of activities for Palestinian children aged six to 17. The centre is essential for youth, giving  them  a safe space in the Old City of East Jerusalem where they can express themselves, grow in confidence, and release stress. I wish I had been part of Saraya when I was an adolescent. Their activities help young people develop life skills, safely discuss the daily challenges they face, and learn about Palestinian culture and heritage.

In Lebanon, I witnessed how Palestinian refugees also face severe hardship. The 12 Palestinian camps suffer from overcrowding, unemployment, poor housing and lack of infrastructure and services. I met many young Palestinians in Lebanon and they all share the frustrations of being displaced and discriminated against. They were born and raised in Lebanon, but they are not treated as Lebanese. On the contrary, they are discriminated against in every aspect of life, frequently denied opportunities to work in their chosen fields and marginalised from society. Although they are Palestinian, they have never seen Palestine, which creates a big identity crisis. Growing up in such circumstances creates a huge need for psychosocial support.

In partnership with UNICEF and five local organisations - Naba'a, Najdeh, NISCVT, Tadamon and the General Union of Palestinian Women - MAP is bringing psychosocial and mental health support to thousands of children growing up in these harsh conditions. The programme’s activities provide structured, recreational and learn-through-play psychosocial support activities. The project aims to empower young people to advocate their rights with confidence in their context of overlapping political and social restrictions.

While psychological support cannot solve the root problems facing Palestinians, it is much needed, supporting Palestinians in their determination to be resilient and active survivors. It is essential that Palestinian youth continue to have a safe place to decompress, share experiences and develop coping mechanisms, in order to reach their fullest potential.

Thanks to our supporters, MAP is able to continue projects supporting young Palestinians living under occupation and as refugees even during the unprecedented contemporary challenges.

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2020 edition of our supporter magazine, Witness.

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