Summoning up a world without fear

A Palestinian girl in Gaza on surviving five Israeli military offensives

Oct 05, 2022
Farah Al-Masri, 15, stands on the rubble of her old family home that was destroyed by Israeli shelling in 2014, and rebuilt in following years only to be destroyed again in another Israeli military offensive in May 2021. Farah says she will continue to dream of a world with no fear. (Photo credit: Marwan Al Sawwaf / Oxfam 2022)

Gaza, October 5, 2022The pounding started unexpectedly in the afternoon on Friday, August 5, rekindling fear and anxiety for the already exhausted children of Gaza, as Israeli forces launched a three-day military offensive on the Gaza Strip, leaving 48 Palestinians killed and 300 wounded.

As Israeli bombs shook the tiny costal enclave, 15-year-old Farah al-Masri, the eldest of four siblings, anxiously began thinking about what it may mean for her and her siblings. 

“It took us a while to find out what was happening,” said Farah. “When we found out, I was sure we were going to be hit and fall under rubble.”

Four out of five children in the Gaza Strip suffer from depression, sadness, and fear after living mostly—if not entirely—under 15 years of Israeli closure policies targeting the Gaza Strip, according to a report by Save the Children.

Farah and her siblings had just started to get used to their new home in Beit Hanoun, a city located in the northeast Gaza Strip, which they resided in for just over a year. Their previous home in Beit Hanoun was destroyed during the Israeli military offensive in Gaza between May 10–21, 2021.

“Our best decision was in 2014 and again in May 2021 to run away with our bodies and most important documents, so I started thinking about how we will do that again with my little sisters,” said Farah.

The shelling was a few miles south this time, in Gaza City, but the resonance, the smoke, and fear filled the gaps between the clouds that topped the blockaded Gaza Strip, and seemed to stand still, at least for Farah.

Farah would have never been able to guess if the surprise bombardment was going to last beyond the weekend or not, if it would reach her new house or if she would begin ninth grade at school this year. But, a few days later, she had survived her fifth Israeli military offensive.

Palestinian children in Gaza like Farah live in near constant fear. According to experts, over 75 percent are destined to many years of post-traumatic symptoms, including manifestations of anxieties such as nightmares, bedwetting, severe distress and disorders that hit particularly hard under a collapsing health sector and an unforgiving Israeli permit system. 

The Israeli military launched airstrikes across the Gaza Strip on August 5, killing at least 44 people and injuring at least 350, according to Al Jazeera. A ceasefire went into effect at 11:30 p.m. on August 7. The Israeli military offensive came just days after Israeli forces arrested a senior Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank city of Jenin and killed 16-year-old Dirar Riyad Lufti Al-Haj Saleh, also in Jenin, who was protesting the Israeli military’s incursion into Jenin refugee camp.

On August 7, an Israeli drone-fired missile struck Al-Fallujah cemetery, west of Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, around 7 p.m., according to documentation collected by DCIP. The Israeli airstrike killed five Palestinian children: Jamil Najmuddin Jamil Najim, 3; Hamed Heidar Hamed Najim, 16; Jamil Ihab Jamil Najim, 13; Mohammad Salah Hamed Najim, 16; and Nathmi Fayez Abdulhadi Abu Karsh, 15.

Farah did not know them, but believes that they must have been great friends.

“I think sometimes that I might have met them somewhere, but then I pray for them and hope they are in a better place in heaven,” said Farah.

Born in Gaza in December 2007, Farah says that she is most grateful for two things: the moment that her family packed up their stuff and left their house before it was destroyed in 2014 and her gift, which is acting.

With small hand gestures, Farah explains how when shells hit the Gaza Strip she runs into her safe space by role playing.

“I am talented in acting, I love acting a lot and try to roleplay an innocent young girl,” she said. “When I am acting, my own world lines up to surround me. There is no fear in that world.”

Farah says she delves into her imagined world so she can disregard any features of fear on her outer shell, and that she does it for her three younger sisters.

“I always believe that I should be the courageous one, and that is why I have to bring myself to the point of power to support my three younger sisters who are only 13, seven, and two years old,” she said. 

However, according to Aghadeer Hamad, a mental health worker in the Gaza Strip, assuming a caretaker’s role would not likely serve Farah or young children her age. 

“It may serve as an immediate outlet, but would she be able to process her mental state when she is alone? Most probably not, but this is what’s happening with the majority of Gaza’s children,” said Hamad.

“I cry my fear out, only when I’m alone,” said Farah, the brave 15-year-old girl. “But sometimes I used to ask my teacher to be excused to the toilet to shed my tears and go back to class.”

Farah's courage conceals the sorrow for her house that was demolished twice.

“From my old home, we used to walk about two minutes to school, but now I need about 20 minutes to get to my school,” said Farah. “I still pass by the ruins of my old house.” 

Farah recalls memories of that old house that was rebuilt after it was destroyed by Israeli shelling in Israel’s summer military offensive in 2014. She had lived in it until May 2021 when Israel launched another military offensive on the Gaza Strip. She notes that the decision to pack up their most important documents into a small bag and moving out in a matter of few minutes was “the best decision her family took,” because they survived.

“I don’t think my sisters remember much from 2014, but I just hope that they won’t have to disrupt their memories in our new home,” Farah said.

“When those memories confront us at school and my classmates start crying, I try to console them, and I enter a play of my own direction to help myself push through,” said Farah. “My advice I give to myself is to let go, especially of fear and just remember there is nothing difficult and eventually, we go on.”

However, Farah, like most Palestinian children who grew more aware of their political reality, it is difficult to ‘go on,’ so long as an internal division continues to supersede the political sphere and affect most life aspects.

“Only if I can know where I can go with my acting, if I get to a proper theater or drama school,” said Farah as she gazed outside a window on her left side and drowned in what seemed to be total silence despite the loud drilling for house reconstruction projects in her neighborhood.

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