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This boy — one of thousands orphaned in Gaza — hopes Canada will let him start over

UNICEF says Gaza is the most dangerous place on earth to be a child, with more than 17,000 children separated from their parents or orphaned because of Israeli attacks. As children caught up in the war describe missing their parents or wishing they'd died, too, experts say the scope of the psychological trauma they've endured is impossible to estimate.

Gaza’s heartbroken, orphaned children face long odds to rebuild their lives after trauma of war

Nine year old Yahya Hamad was badly wounded in an Israeli air strike that killed everyone else in his family. He is hoping he can come to Canada to live with an uncle.

As nine year old Yahya Hamad fell asleep beside his parents on the night of Feb. 16, he could not have known that it would be the last time he would feel the comfort of their presence.

Hours later, an Israeli airstrike slammed into the home near Deir al Balah in central Gaza where multiple families were taking shelter.

"I woke up to the sound of bombs and everyone was screaming," Yahya told CBC News.

"Rocks and rubble were on top of me, there was a hole I was breathing from, and I put my hand out so people could find me."

While Yahya was rescued, no one else from his family made it — his mother, father, sister and two older brothers were all killed. His injuries — broken bones in his arms and legs, now heavily bandaged — have left him in searing pain, lying immobile in a Gaza hospital bed.

WATCH | In a Gaza hospital, an orphaned boy misses his mother:

He was rescued from rubble in Gaza — family in Canada are desperately trying to help

23 hours ago

Duration 2:09

Yahya Hamad, 9, was asleep when the building he was in was hit by a bomb. Someone spotted him and pulled him from the rubble, but his parents and siblings died.

Gaza most dangerous place for children: UNICEF

"I want to see my mother's face again," he said with tears in his eyes. But when he goes through her phone, there are no photos of her. "There is nothing — there are no pictures."

UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, has estimated that 17,000 children have been left either orphaned or separated from their parents because of the war. The creation of so many fractured childhoods and parentless children has emerged as one of the most harrowing humanitarian challenges of the five month old conflict.

While UNICEF says it's difficult to compare terrible humanitarian situations across war zones and continents, the group says it is prepared to state that Gaza is the most dangerous place for children anywhere on Earth.

According to Tess Ingram, who just returned from spending a week in Gaza with the UN agency, the impact of this kind of long-term trauma is something they don't yet fully understand.

"What's been happening in the Gaza Strip is daily incidences of repeated trauma that children are unable to flee from."

But Yahya is one child who is hoping to try. With relatives in Winnipeg, he can at least attempt to come to Canada through the government's special visa program, but it's a difficult, expensive process that even the immigration minister has admitted is frustrating.

Dr. Khalil Al Degran has been treating children suffering from pyschological problems at a hospital in Deir al Balah, Gaza.

Treating traumatized children

Only twelve of Gaza's 36 hospitals are currently functioning, according to the World Health Organization, and psychological and counselling services for orphaned children are severely limited.

"There's been a huge spread of emotional problems such as depression, anxiety and isolation," said Dr. Khalil Al Degran, who has been treating Yahya and countless other children at a hospital in Deir al Balah.

The nearby Palestinian Orphan Home Association is one of the few local agencies still in a position to help parentless children with food, shelter and companionship.

LISTEN | Canadian doctors describe life in Gaza as aid dries up:

Day 63:20Canadian doctors bear witness to life in Rafah as aid dries up

This week, a small group of Canadian doctors left Rafah after spending a week providing medical assistance to people in the southern Gaza city, where about 1.5 million displaced Palestinians are seeking shelter. Dr. Fozia Alvi, a physician in Calgary and the founder of the medical relief charity, Humanity Auxilium, describes what she saw.

Manager Basil Mohammed al-Habash told CBC News the loss experienced by some of the 5,000 children now in his care is staggering.

"I've seen one or two orphans who have lost at least 70 members of their families," he said, noting the agency is struggling to track down all the children who need help.

"Most have been displaced and now live a very difficult life," said al-Habash. "They live in tents that are not made to be lived in."

Basil Mohammed al-Habash of the Palestinian Orphan Home Association meet with staff this week. He told CBC News his group has 5,000 children under their care.

He says those who are old enough to realise their parents are dead suffer the most.

"The younger ones under the age of 10, they are wetting their pants, and they have difficulty speaking. The mental health issues are very difficult due to the dreams they see while sleeping."

Ingram, the UNICEF official, says some orphaned children are fortunate in that they are able to be cared for by extended family members, but she notes that the loss of parents and siblings will cause lifelong trauma.

"At UNICEF, we estimate that 100 per cent of the children in the Gaza Strip require mental health care and we are doing what we can," she told CBC News in an interview from Amman, Jordan.

"But we're a small team and the needs are so enormous. So it is not surprising that children are feeling these sorts of overwhelming emotions."

WATCH | She lost her mother, father and 4 siblings to Israeli airstrikes:

'I wish I was killed with them': How one child in Gaza is struggling with devastating loss

23 hours ago

Duration 1:22

Alma AlJarrour, 12, lost her mother, father and four siblings to Israeli airstrikes. She's with extended family now, but they worry about her as she struggles with loss, trauma and fear of what's to come.

'My cousins are my siblings now'

Recently, a CBC News videographer was able to speak to 12 year old Alma Al Jarrour, the lone survivor of a Feb. 2 attack in Gaza that killed 145 people.

She and most of her extended family members were staying in a house next to a mosque that was struck by an Israeli airstrike. The blast destroyed their home as well.

In an instant, she lost both parents and all four of her siblings.

While Alma emerged physically unscathed, Sami El Haddad, her uncle who has taken her in, told CBC News she often cries inconsolably.

Alma Al Jarrour sits with her uncle Sami El Haddad. He and wife say the orphaned girl will live with them from now on.

"Her emotional state is not very good," he said. "She starts crying and it's hard to calm her down."

When the CBC videographer visited Alma in a tent in Rafah, she was colouring and drawing with El Haddad's children, her cousins.

"I wanted to go to my grandma's but we didn't because I reminded her of what happened to my mom and dad," she said.

Alma says being able to play with her cousins has helped her feel less alone.

"My aunt made my fears a little better and I stopped feeling scared now," she said. "My cousins are my siblings now."

Twelve year old Alma Al Jarrour colours with her cousins in a temporary shelter in Gaza. She was the sole survivor of an Israeli attack on a mosque on February 2nd, that also destroyed the home where she and her extended family were staying.

'We are all failing Gazans': immigration minister

Ingram from UNICEF says while the war rages, there is little NGOs can do to provide more counselling and psychological help. As well, she says tracing extended family of orphaned children has been difficult "given the ongoing telecommunications blackouts."

In Yahya's case, he's being cared for by an older aunt in Rafah, but she was wounded in an earlier bombing and was already having difficulty looking after four children in her care.

The nine year old's best hope may be to come to Canada, where his uncle, Maher Muhammed Hamad, has been living in Winnipeg for the past four years.

"My heart is bleeding," Hamad told CBC News in a Zoom call to discuss his nephew's situation. "No one can fill the emptiness that he has suffered through."

Canada has announced a special program to help Canadians or permanent residents with family members in Gaza bring them to Canada. The program is capped at 1,000 visas and as of yet, no applications have been fully approved.

WATCH | Marc Miller on efforts to bring Gazans to Canada:

'We are all failing Gazans': Marc Miller

2 days ago

Duration 2:35

Immigration Minister Marc Miller, who was asked Thursday about efforts to get people with relatives in Canada out of Gaza, says the situation in Gaza represents 'probably the largest hostage-taking, right now, in the world.'

"We keep pushing," Canada's Immigration Minister Marc Miller said Thursday at a news conference.

"I undertook with my cabinet colleagues to push authorities in Israel and Egypt … so it's very frustrating for me," Miller said. "But we are all failing Gazans at this point."

Israeli authorities, along with Egypt, tightly control access to and from the Palestinian territory.

Yahya's uncle, Hamad, says the process is also expensive. He expects the costs of travel, accommodation, and obtaining the necessary visas for the little boy to make the trip to Canada could eventually be over $40,000 Cdn, a price that his family, still just starting out in Canada, cannot bear.

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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