Japanese NPO works to heal young minds in war-torn Gaza

Japanese doctor Kuwayama Norihiko has long supported children in the Gaza Strip through his NPO, Frontline. He's now doubling his efforts to provide vital psychological care in light of Israel's relentless attacks.

A Frontline worker in the enclave recently told Kuwayama about the desperation taking root, saying many young people are becoming withdrawn and are unable to interact normally with others.

Kuwayama laments the fact that a great deal of support is being shut out. "It's unfortunate we foreigners can't enter Gaza," he says. "It's painful, not being able to do anything."

Kuwayama Norihiko speaks to NHK in Ebina City, Kanagawa Prefecture.

Health officials in the enclave say as of December 16, more than 18,700 people have been killed since the escalation in violence began on October 7. And Kuwayama fears the fighting is taking a huge mental toll on the children who struggle on.

Frontline has been helping young people in southern Gaza for the past 20 years. Kuwayama is based in Ebina City, Kanagawa Prefecture, but the NPO runs a support center in the city of Rafah.

Education on pause

Recent photos taken by journalist and Frontline staffer Mohamed Mansour show the problems facing young people across the enclave.

Much of Gaza has been reduced to rubble.

School classes are on hold indefinitely. Instead, the children carry food and water or keep smartphones charged using solar panels.

In one image, a boy pedals a contraption made from a bicycle to generate electricity for his father's sewing machine.

A boy generates electricity for a sewing machine with his feet.

Young Gazans were under extreme stress long before the recent escalation. A survey in 2022 found that 80 percent of children felt scared, tense or sad. More than half were contemplating suicide.

But the situation has since grown even worse. Kuwayama says support is more urgent than ever, to help lower the risk of severe post-traumatic stress disorder among children.

He recently launched a support program called Psychological First Aid. Donations come from all over Japan, and his team on the ground provide the care.

"The local staff have grown over the past 20 years, and they can now offer psychological support," he says. "The role of people in Japan is to send funds and create opportunities."

Raising self-esteem

Since December 10, the program has seen Frontline workers dispatched to schools in Rafah operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. The aim is to visit four per week over the next three months.

Frontline staff visit a school in Rafah.

A school the NPO visited on December 11 serves as a shelter for about 9,000 people, of which 3,800 are children.

The Frontline staff provided support to about 150 kids aged between six and 15. Much of the work was aimed at raising their spirits, and encouraging them to interact.

First, they played local folk songs and urged the children to join in by tapping their knees and raising their hands. After so much turmoil, the concept of fun appeared alien to many, but they soon loosened up.

The NPO also organized a game similar to musical chairs, and held a singing session. The idea was to develop a sense of solidarity, and allow the children to regain their self-esteem by expressing themselves in front of others.

A Frontline worker interacts with the children.

'Best day of my life'

The Psychological First Aid program has only just begun, but it's already having a profound impact on the children.

"I don't play in the local square because I am afraid a missile might come," said one girl who took part. "That's why I'm so happy today. I wish it could be like this every day. I thank the Japanese people."

One of the boys was equally enthusiastic: "I am tired of this war to the core. I'm so afraid of the airstrikes that I can't sleep at night. But today was fun. I'm exhausted from playing so much."

And another girl simply said: "Today is the best day I've ever had."

The Israel-Hamas conflict is raging on, and Kuwayama says the global community must not turn its back on the young victims.

"I hope anyone who sees these children desperately trying to survive will say, 'Let's stop this war.'"

The children in Gaza respond well to the NPO Frontline's activities.