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Helping Children Traumatized From Latest Israel-Hamas Fighting

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For 11 days during the war between Israel and Hamas, parents tried to keep their children calm and safe. This next story is hard to hear but important to hear. NPR's Ruth Sherlock begins with a mother in Israel.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: I called Noa Ashad Berkely (ph), a mother to an 8-year-old boy and 6-year-old girl in Sredot, an Israeli town right on the border with Gaza.

NOA ASHAD BERKELY: Our kids' room is the bomb shelter. That's their room. That's where they sleep all of the time.

SHERLOCK: When the air raid sirens go off to warn of rockets, the kids know they sometimes only have 15 seconds to take cover.

BERKELY: My youngest - she shakes a lot. She wouldn't be able to stop shaking until, like, 10, 15, 20 minutes after. They're scared. Every sound, every noise that they hear, they jump.

SHERLOCK: Over the years, Berkely says, she's developed strategies to help her children cope. For example, there's the red box.

BERKELY: So it's a box that they have permission to open only in times that we have the alerts.

SHERLOCK: It's full of toys like puzzles and coloring books and bubbles because it helps them take long, calming breaths. She also doesn't let them hear the news. The Israeli government says two children died in Israel from Hamas rockets in this recent escalation. Officials in Gaza say some 65 children have been killed by Israeli warplanes and shelling.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

JAMELEH TAWFIQ: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Jameleh Tawfiq in Gaza filmed footage in which she comforts her scared 3-year-old niece at night as Israeli bombs fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

SHERLOCK: Another video shows another niece, 2-year-old Shams, at home, terrified.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

SHAMS: (Screaming).

SHERLOCK: Tawfiq tells me how she tried to calm her brother's 5-year-old daughter. We speak by phone when the bombardment in Gaza is ongoing.

TAWFIQ: I told her that everything is going to be fine. This will eventually end. And you're...

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

TAWFIQ: OK. (Non-English language spoken). And you're going to go to the kindergarten. You're going to see your friends. And...

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

TAWFIQ: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Nearby in Gaza lives Asma Kaisi, a single mother of three girls and a boy all under the age of 11.

ASMA KAISI: The sounds of explosions were unbelievably loud. I mean, my whole building would be shaking.

SHERLOCK: She tells me one night, she and her children crawled from the bedroom to the living room to hide under the table for cover.

KAISI: My oldest was crying hysterically. And she was like, do you promise that we won't die? Do you promise that it won't hit us this time? And I just didn't know what to say. And...

SHERLOCK: What did you say?

KAISI: I told her I do promise. Let's just to hang in there. We're going to be safe. And deep down, I knew that we might be the next victims, you know. So my little one asks me, like, Mommy, does it hurt when we die?

SHERLOCK: This question knocked her breath away, especially because these were the first words 7-year-old Mira had spoken in days. Kaisi, who's trained in dealing with trauma from her work with an aid group, encourages her children to express themselves by writing letters to people they love or drawing. She tries to distract them with cooking, and she leads them in breathing exercises. But Mira, the little girl who fell silent this past week, now has a stutter. And Ward, her 5-year-old son, keeps smelling her hair and kissing her face because, he tells her, If I die, I don't want to forget you.

KAISI: It just broke my heart. It really did. And I had a tear coming down my face, where he wiped it off. I just don't know. These are really difficult times.

SHERLOCK: The cease-fire comes as a relief, but how the children will recover from the trauma - that's another story. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLAFUR ARNALDS'S "MOMENTARY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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