Evacuating Rafah: Q&A with SOS Children’s Village Rafah programme director

“The children knew: When we say, ‘It’s time to go!’ it’s time to go.”

Amidst the Gaza conflict, on 11 March SOS Children’s Villages successfully evacuated 68 children, staff, and their families from SOS Children’s Village Rafah in Gaza to a safe location in Bethlehem.

In this interview, Samy, Programme Director at SOS Children’s Village Rafah, speaks about the evacuation and how the children are doing since their arrival.

Interview by Simone Kosog

Q: It’s been five months of war, fear, worry, and displacement. Now, 68 children, as well as staff and their families, have been successfully evacuated to Bethlehem… are you relieved?

A: We’re all happy and relieved. We’ve been warmly welcomed here in Bethlehem by colleagues and the entire SOS Children’s Village. We’re reasonably safe and able to sleep without the sound of bombs. We’re doing better. But the children need time to adjust. They’ve left their homes and still feel like strangers.

Q: Had the children ever been outside of Gaza before?

A: No, never. They boarded a bus for the first time, held a passport for the first time, and stayed in a hotel for the first time. Now they need to understand where they’ve landed.

Q: To avoid endangering the evacuation, it was kept secret for a long time. Did the children even have the opportunity to prepare?

A: We briefed them step-by-step. They knew about a month in advance that an exit was planned, but no details. There were discussions with psychologists. The children knew: when we say, ‘It’s time to go’ then it’s time to go. Sometime before the evacuation, we started packing our bags – very calmly and as inconspicuously as possible.

Q: What was the moment like when they actually left?

A: There were many emotions at play. There was euphoria and joy, but also tears. It’s not easy to leave your homeland, not even for the staff and caregivers. But everything worked out and we were able to support the children well. It was very helpful that they were traveling with their friends and trusted caregivers and that they were psychologically supported.

Q: What’s happening now in Bethlehem?

A: We are organising activities, today there was a soccer game with the children from the SOS Children’s Village. The children have been medically examined and are now getting to know the city. But they also need rest and have a lot to process. Even though in Rafah we tried to distract them as much as possible, there was a lot of fear and stress. Bombs were constantly heard, they couldn’t leave the property, couldn’t go to school. Next, we’ll work on setting up apartments for the families.

Q: Where are they currently staying?

A: In transitional housing. We couldn’t prepare anything. The plan is for some of them to move into vacant buildings in SOS Children’s Villages Bethlehem. We’re in the process of preparing them. For the others, we’ve found apartments in the city. They’ll also live in a house together with SOS Children’s Villages’ families from Bethlehem, which makes me very happy. The local families are helping them settle in. We hope the families can move in by the end of Ramadan.

Q: When will the children go back to school?

A: From the next school year. We are currently coordinating the details with the Ministry of Education. Until then, we are organising classes for them so they can catch up and be well prepared. They’re entering a different education system here.

Q: Many of the children still have relatives in Gaza. Is it possible to stay in touch with them?

A: Yes, that is very important to us. We try to organise daily online meetings between the children and their relatives. When people in Gaza see the children on the screen and hear they’re safe and happy, a smile spreads across their faces.

But the meetings are also important for the children. They are a link to their homeland and familiar people. We’re only in Bethlehem temporarily and want to return home as soon as possible.

Q: What happens at the SOS Children’s Village Rafah, now you’re gone?

A: Intensive assistance will continue there. We’re the only organisation in all of Gaza that provides protection and care for children who have lost their families in the war. Even former residents who grew up in the SOS Children’s Village have found refuge there. The Village continues to be a humanitarian site that must be protected under all circumstances. Our colleagues also provide emergency assistance to families. They support them with cash payments and psychological help, among other things.

Q: How are you personally?

A: The most important thing is to ensure the children are well taken care of, as well as my family, who also came with me and have been through a lot. When the war started, we had to leave our house in Gaza City in a hurry. We couldn’t take anything. I left all my clothes, everything I had. We then spent the last five months in the SOS Children’s Village and now must find our way again. But we will manage, we have support, which feels good.

Since the war began five months ago, 13,450 children have been killed, 17,000 have been left without parental care, and an estimated 1 million need mental health support. SOS Children’s Villages continues to do all we can to support children and families in Gaza, who are living through unimaginable violence and suffering.

Read more about how we’re helping in Gaza, here.

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