Q&A with Head of UNICEF Gaza

 

UNICEF’s Chief of Gaza Field Office Pernille Ironside took questions during a live Q&A session on Reddit on Wednesday.

Ironside has been leading UNICEF’s response providing life-saving support to children in Gaza. For the past decade she has worked in some of the most difficult places in the world – DRC, South Sudan, Sudan, Yemen and others.

Pernille hosted the Reddit ‘Ask Me Anything’ to highlight the effects of conflict on children and the work of UNICEF Palestine. Read the full AMA here.

Q. What is UNICEF currently doing to try and protect children in Gaza?

Thanks for your important question.

Children across Gaza are incredibly vulnerable right now in so many ways and require multiple forms of protection.UNICEF is actively advocating for the protection of civilians and civilian objects from military strikes so that no more children are killed and injured; we monitor and document this on a daily basis.We also have teams on the ground who are reaching out to children and their families who have already lost loved ones to provide them with some immediate coping skills to deal with their grief and loss; this is called ‘psychosocial first aid’.

Unfortunately Gaza is now littered with unexploded ordinances, so we are doing a lot of awareness raising via the radio and in public shelters/communities to protect children (and adults!) about spotting such dangerous explosive remnants of war and who to report to. We fear that many more children could lose their lives or be maimed from this after the war if we don’t step up awareness.These are just some of the activities that we have underway.

Three-year old Mohammed Fakhri Naim was hurt when an UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun, in which he and his family had sought refuge
3-year old Mohammed Fakhri Naim was hurt when an UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun, in which he and his family had sought shelter. Photo: UNICEF/Loulou D’ak

Q. Can you speak to the most powerful effect(s) of this conflict on children? How are they being helped?

The impact on children of this conflict has been devastating – both physically and psychologically. 460 children have died (majority under age 12) and 3,000 children have been injured, many with terrible burns and amputations. Thousands more have lost their homes. Perhaps what’s most impactful, however, is how helpless and frightened children feel, knowing there is nowhere safe for them to go. Many kids are exhibiting symptoms of withdrawal, not wanting to let their parents out of sight, not sleeping, nightmares…. exacerbated by the constant hum of overhead drones and uncertainty of where the next strike will land.

UNICEF visits Maha El-Sheikh Khalil, 7, in the paediatric ward of Al-Shifa Hospital, in Gaza. Photo: UNICEF, Gaza, 2014, El-Baba
UNICEF visits Maha El-Sheikh Khalil, 7, in the paediatric ward of Al-Shifa Hospital, in Gaza. Photo: UNICEF, Gaza, 2014, El-Baba

Q. How do you keep it together when you spend your life surrounded by suffering and dying kids? I became a dad 6 months ago and just seeing a news story about some Palestinian family being caught in an air-strike makes me well-up.

Congrats on becoming a dad!

Emotions are essential for humanitarian workers – we cannot be effective if we are automatons desensitized from human suffering. We are human. I try to positively channel my emotions into even greater resolve, conviction, strength and deep empathy into everything we at UNICEF aim to achieve and everyone I meet in our work. I also have the unwavering support of friends and family to do what I am doing and to dig deeper when it gets tough.

Q. Are the children currently attending school? Are there enough schools?

Children are still on their summer break but normally school should resume on August 24th in Gaza. This will not be possible this year without a stable ceasefire in place. Also, there are still over 250,000 people who have sought safety and shelter in schools all across Gaza as their homes have been destroyed or they live in high risk areas; they still need to find alternative shelter. UNICEF is working hard on preparing for a massive ‘back to school’ campaign, enabling children to go back to learning as soon as possible with the support of their teachers and families.

10 year old Qamar and her family are seeking shelter in a public school in Gaza. Photo: UNICEF / Sajy Elmughanni
10 year old Qamar and her family are seeking shelter in a public school in Gaza. Photo: UNICEF / Sajy Elmughanni

Q. Hello! Thank you for all your work in Gaza and everything else. I’m curious, how does the whole UN system (as well as other humanitarian actors) work together (to assist) within the Gaza Strip? 

Also, looking for positive light, can you share with us an inspiring story that happened at Gaza so that people maybe encouraged to advocate for the cause? 🙂

Thanks for your great questions!

To tackle this very complex emergency, the UN has set up a humanitarian Emergency Operations Centre in Gaza, under the capable leadership of UN-OCHA. It is here that UN agencies and other key humanitarian actors combine forces to do our utmost in terms of the emergency response. We also have an established humanitarian cluster system in Gaza that was active prior to this latest conflict. UNICEF is leading coordination of the water/sanitation and child protection sectors, and co-leading coordination of the education sector with Save the Children.

I am inspired on a daily basis by my colleagues – Palestinian humanitarians. Despite having been through 3 major wars, having themselves been shelled and needing to find safety and shelter for their families and friends, they somehow / somewhere find the strength to get up in the morning, cross all manner of obstacles and danger to selflessly provide much needed humanitarian relief. They are true humanitarian heroes!

Palestinian children light a candle during a blackout at the UN school where they and others have taken shelter after fleeing heavy fighting. Photo: UNICEF, Gaza, 2014, El Baba
Palestinian children light a candle during a blackout at the UN school where they are sheltering after fleeing heavy fighting. Photo: UNICEF, Gaza, 2014, El Baba

Q. What advice would you give to the leaders/presidents/Prime Ministers of the world?

We are faced with a situation where 1 million children in Gaza today are deeply affected by this latest deadly conflict; many of them will bear the physical and psychological scars for a lifetime in spite of all the assistance. At this stage, there future looks extraordinarily bleak.

UNICEF and partners work to give children space to be ‘children’ and we support the health, education, water/sanitation, and social welfare systems and services that keep them alive and healthy. But at the end of the day, what children need is peace – and that requires political action.

The world must unite together in common humanity to put an end to the situation in Gaza and not to perpetuate conditions that promote hatred, intolerance and a sense of hopelessness.

Five-year old Zacharia. Photo: UNICEF/Gaza/2014/d'Aki
Five-year old Zacharia speaks to a UNICEF counsellor using sign language. Photo: UNICEF/Gaza/2014/d’Aki

 Q. If a 7-year-old in Gaza has already experienced three wars in his/her lifetime, how can we help these children to grow up with the belief that peace and coexistence is in fact achievable?

You have raised a pivotal question.

Promoting peacebuilding, social cohesion, tolerance and understanding amongst children are key aims of an important project that UNICEF had working with Palestinian adolescents even prior to this latest conflict. Further attention to and investment in providing meaningful and supportive educational and extra-curricular opportunities for Palestinian children and adolescents is even more vital now to counter sentiments of despair, anger and hopelessness.

“It is so hard to live these days," says 10-year-old Mohammed, who has taken shelter in a UN-run school in Gaza City after fleeing the family home in Shishaya. Photo: UNICEF/Loulou D’Aki
“It is so hard to live these days,” says 10-year-old Mohammed, who has taken shelter in a UN-run school in Gaza City after fleeing the family home in Shishaya. Photo: UNICEF/Loulou D’Aki

 Q. In the course of doing your work, what saddens you the most?

It breaks my heart when I hear children give up hope. Last week I met 14 year old Razan in Gaza. She shared with me that she would prefer to have died quickly from the bombs rather than further endure the suffering of a slow death under occupation with little hope for a “normal” future of opportunity and freedom. This is heartbreaking; and she is not alone in this sentiment.

ten-year old Shahed as she rests at al Shifa hospital in Gaza City.
10-year old Shahed as she rests at al Shifa hospital in Gaza City. She needs surgery to remove shrapnel from her ear. Photo: UNICEF, Gaza, 2014, D’Aki

Q. What can someone like me, sitting at their computer, do to help?

You can be aware and informed; advocate for change; encourage your leaders to seek and find peaceful solutions; and donate to organizations that are saving lives. And donate now.