Ayat Brekat, 12
Ayat Brekat, 12, has lived through four wars so far.
“Ayat is a cheerful and smiling child, embracing life with enthusiasm, but when I go beyond surface exchanges with her, her feeling of inadequacy becomes apparent,” Alaa Yaghi, 33, her teacher, said.
On May 13, 2023, just moments before dawn, Maha Brekat, 35, and her five children were trying to get some sleep in their two-room home in Al-Jalaa Street. Without warning, a massive bombardment reduced their neighbor Muhanna’s house to rubble.
“As the fragments flew, a part of the missile fell right next to my leg,” Ayat said, her voice trembling.
She shrieked hysterically. Her mother hugged her tightly, took her to a neighbor’s house, and stayed close beside her.
“Our house, with its asbestos roof, trembles with every bombardment, like an earthquake,” her mother said. “To avoid the roof caving in on us, I run for shelter in our neighbor’s concrete house.”
During the 2021 war, incessant Israeli airstrikes lit up the night sky, terrorizing Gazans. One night the roof of the Brekat family home collapsed under continual airstrikes. Since then, the entire family has a paralyzing fear of roofs collapsing. Her mother said, “I screamed for help, but no one answered.”
Ayat’s young life has been marked by overwhelming anxiety, her body trembling and her heart racing with any sound of bombings or the presence of aircraft overhead.
“I am afraid of everything,” Ayat said, biting her fingernails and hiding her face. “I do not have a room. I do not even have toys.”
During each attack, Ayat clings to her mother’s side, begging her: “Don’t fall asleep, mama.”
“My daughter imagines the word ‘war’ as a monster that comes to overwhelm us, and she utters strange words sometimes,” Brekat said.
Ayat learned that a ceasefire had been announced when she woke up the next morning. Still, whenever she hears a loud noise nearby, she rushes to her mother, terrified that the war resumed.
The bombing has stopped, but Ayat continues to experience restless sleep. Her nightmares frequently awaken her.
Ayat describes the nightmares to her teacher, explaining that she sees her classmates as monsters and her house as deep holes. She keeps repeating sentences like, “My uncle’s house is made of concrete,” suggesting a preoccupation with sturdy structures that offer hope of protection.
She can’t control her bladder. Her mother is feeling helpless about what to do. “I wake my daughter up nearly eight times a night to forestall her involuntary urination, but it does not always work.”
According to Dr. Yasser Abu-Jamei, general director of the Gaza Mental Health Program, “These [Israeli] aggressions leave psychological effects that can be either short-term or long-term. Some may speak of psychological disorders among children such as post-traumatic stress disorder. However, in Gaza, what we often observe among psychologically affected children is involuntary urination, sleep disturbances and restlessness.”
Ayat also suffers from sleepwalking, which occurs almost every night. Brekat told us, “Every night, I diligently inspect the door and ensure that I always keep the key with me.”
She realizes that her daughter needs treatment. The child gets psychological support in therapy sessions at the Fares Al-Arab Foundation. She also attends other mental health programs.
In the week after the ceasefire was announced, Yaghi began each class with a short activity, such as drawing, so that she could tell what her students were thinking about. “When I give her colored markers and paper to draw, she depicts what she envisions in her dreams. She gravitates toward vibrant colors and often draws concrete houses,” Yaghi said.
Yaghi noted that Ayat is not motivated to do well in school; she neglected to study for her final exams.
Yet somehow Ayat doesn’t lose hope. “I dream of being a journalist. I want to cover the stories of miserable people.” She sighs deeply.
Leen Shaet, 11
Most children with cell phones play games and watch entertainment videos. But not Leen, 11.
Basma Shaet, Leen’s mother, told the Washington Report, “Holding onto her phone, she neither played games nor watched YouTube videos as usual, but was anxiously following the news of the attacks.”
The most recent Israeli assault in May transformed the usually chatty and smiling Leen into a completely different child. Her mother reports that when assaults begin, Leen worries constantly and keeps asking when there will be a ceasefire and when it will stop.
The war haunts Leen even in her dreams. “I started to have nightmares about war. I would wake up terrified, full of tears, and run to my mother,” Leen said.
Her family, including her 19-old-year sister, Fatima, gathers by her side to reassure her.
The most recent war coincided with the pre-final exams period, and Leen couldn’t pick up a book or even hold a pen.
“In the long run,” Dr. Abu-Jamei said, “children’s inability to concentrate or adhere to social expectations due to heightened anxiety and stress can lead to academic difficulties. It can also cause problems in their social relationships with peers and classmates.”
Even in the absence of bombing, the sound of an F-16 jet flying overhead fills Leen with terror.
“I can’t sleep and keep crying all the time,” she told the Washington Report. “Even the word ‘war’ scares me.”
Tamim Daoud, 5
On the night of May 10, a massive strike on the Al-Rimal neighborhood of western Gaza landed on the apartment building where the Khaswan family were sleeping; everyone inside was either killed or severely injured. In the building next door, Tamim Daoud, age 5, immediately woke up shrieking hysterically.
A little later, Tamim complained of difficulty breathing and a stomachache. His father, Mohammad Daoud, 36, attempted to soothe him and settled him down on his lap, where he fell asleep. Then Daoud felt his child’s heart stop beating and his breathing cease.
Daoud did everything he could to save his son. Amidst the ongoing missile attacks, he bravely carried Tamim to the hospital, desperately hoping to revive his weak heart.
Tamim had previously undergone heart surgery for a congenital deformity, and his doctor had advised Daoud to keep his child as calm as possible and to prevent him from exerting himself in activities.
“My child’s dream was to be an engineer,” Tamim’s father said sorrowfully. “But his little heart succumbed to fear. He had witnessed three wars in his five-year life. What child can bear such a thing?”
This story is co-published with Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.