January 6, 2009

Situation Update: Children Caught in the Crossfire

A briefing from Steven Schwager, Executive Vice President
January 5, 2009

JDC stands shoulder to shoulder with the citizens of Israel during this crisis—as we have since we started working in Eretz Yisrael 95 years ago—and will do what is needed to help the most vulnerable who remain in distress in the southern conflict zone. In this update, we offer you some insight into the experiences of the region’s youngest residents.

As schools within missile range of Gaza remain closed, children across the southern conflict zone are confined to their homes. Spending days away from their friends and the routine of everyday life, the adverse long term effect on youngsters is mounting—a major concern. The following accounts paint a picture of the intense plight of the children living under fire, and the special power of volunteer efforts to provide some reprieve from their stress.

Children: Out of School, Steeped in Fear
Merchav is an extended school day program serving 1,800 children from at-risk families in Ashkelon. With schools closed, JDC’s school-based programs serving children in the region are currently on standby. Program staff are nonetheless endeavoring to stay in touch with families, and they are hearing stories that all deliver the same message: Children are suffering from the ongoing tension.

The following story was shared by the parent of a Merchav child:

“We live in a very small apartment in Ashkelon which has no secure room or shelter. The Home Command instructs families like ours to get out of their apartment and into the stairwell of the building within 15 seconds of hearing the warning siren, and then to return home after the ‘boom.’ But this last week there have been so many rockets that the sirens have been going off constantly and my two children refuse to return to our apartment out of fear.

It is winter and very cold, and the stairwell is no place for children to stay. I got very frustrated with them, trying to convince them that they should come back to our home, but by the time they agreed, the siren went off again and we had to stay where we were.

My nine-year-old daughter cries all the time, and she understandably refuses to be in the apartment alone. I myself am very afraid to go out… I am very confused now and don’t know how much longer I can handle living this way.”

JDC recognizes that when schools reconvene, we will need to be appropriately prepared to help these children overcome and process the trauma brought about by this crisis.

JDC Volunteers: Offering a Welcome Diversion for Sderot Children
Many ongoing JDC programs, both during peacetime and in an emergency, incorporate volunteer components that empower target populations. Today, in the southern conflict zone, many such volunteers are being mobilized to provide needed assistance to local residents.

In response to a week of heavy attacks, student volunteers from JDC’s Mishol program—which promotes community solidarity in distressed areas—have opened an activity club to serve children in three Sderot neighborhoods.

The club aims to ensure that children are safe and constructively occupied during the crisis. The student volunteers sometimes spend the night in the shelters with the youngsters, under the guise of a “pajama party.”

Creative crafts and circle games like musical chairs keep children busy—but it’s not all fun and games for this crew of young adults, who need to ensure that everyone gets along in a confined space, for as many as 12 hours a day, in a time of intense fear.

Zohar and Tehilla, two volunteers from this JDC program, offer a glimpse into the experiences of their young charges:

“We were amazed to see how the children— though obviously frightened—function during this time of crisis. They can distinguish between the noise of kassam rockets and the din of explosions in Gaza, and can even identify Israel Defense Force (IDF) planes based on their sound.

“It is clear that this wartime experience is having an indelible impact on them. Today, we saw children play war games with paper airplanes, or pretend a red alert has sounded, even when all is quiet.

“We are convinced that opening the shelter-based club was important; the children were here almost non-stop from 9:00 am till 7:00 pm. The parents were grateful that the children were able to get out of the house. This reprieve enabled them to do errands or simply relax knowing that the children were safe.”

JDC’s historic infrastructure in Israel and longstanding partnership with the Government of Israel positions us to support those communities that find themselves caught in the crossfire of the southern conflict zone. We will continue to update you on JDC’s activities, always with the hope that there will be a peaceful resolution.

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