KIRYAT YAM, Israel (Sep. 4)
The children of Hamiflasim Elementary School cheered as they released hundreds of white balloons into a blue sky Sunday, ushering in their first day of school from the same blacktop where a Katyusha rocket had crashed three weeks ago. The rocket toppled a basketball hoop and sent chunks of debris into the nearby science lab.
The balloons were soon swallowed up by the sky and the children turned their attention to the ground under a wall that had been riddled with holes from the flying shrapnel.
They scooped up handfuls of ball bearings and metal shards, trading some of the war souvenirs and deciding how much they needed to keep for themselves.
"We feel like we know what war is after hearing all the sirens going off but now we know it could hit anywhere," said Yulia, 11, as she scooped up about a dozen ball bearings the size of small metal beads.
Yulia, a sixth-grader with a long, light-brown ponytail, has a bleak view of the future.
"The Holocaust is returning," she said matter-of-factly. "They are trying to kill us with Katyushas, missiles, war."
Assessing what kind of psychological effect living through the war has taken on children is a top priority for educators in northern Israel, who are dealing with an unprecedented number of students exposed to the trauma of living under attack.
Children across the country, however, were affected by the war. Most children watched war footage on television, and many had siblings or relatives in the army.
"It reached children because they are children," said Chava Friedman, chief psychologist for the Ministry of Education. Friedman said the ministry is trying to reach out to all Israeli schoolchildren, explaining that children observe and absorb everything around them.
Hamiflasim Elementary School is located in Kiryat Yam, a suburb of Haifa. About 40 Hezbollah rockets fell in the city during the war. The Katyusha that hit the school fell the day before a U.N. brokered cease-fire came into effect.
Many of the school’s pupils stayed at home for most of the monthlong war, often with no parent or babysitter. They spent the time moving between bomb shelters and their homes while their parents, most of them immigrants afraid to lose their jobs, continued to go to work.
Teachers at the school worked with a team of psychologists and counselors to both decompress themselves from the stress they endured and also to learn how to deal with and identify pupils who might be suffering from emotional distress or post-traumatic symptoms.
In the classroom, the children were encouraged to discuss their summer vacations — from stories of vacations to what it felt like to be in a bomb shelter.
The government is spending about $1.4 million to repair schools like Hamiflasim that suffered physical damage from rocket attacks and to bolster psychological counseling.
Extra school psychologists were hired for the year by the Education Ministry but the Arab school system might suffer because they lack enough Arabic-speaking psychologists and counselors, Friedman said.
School employees were encouraged to boost children’s resilience by radiating a message of both compassion and strength.
"Our school was hit but our spirit has not been broken," said Vered Fisher, the principal of Hamiflasim, during a back-to-school assembly. The school’s 200 pupils are mostly immigrants or children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union or Ethiopia.
The first-graders were welcomed into the school as they paraded under a welcome banner. Older pupils spoke about the difficulties of summer but were excited to begin the new school year and a routine of classes and activities.
As part of the city’s efforts to prepare children for school and a return to normalcy, officials organized a week of leisure activities for the kids during the last week of summer vacation, including field trips and excursions to amusement parks and pools. Moshe Tatar, head of school counseling at Hebrew University’s Department of Education, said one of the most bewildering things for both children and their parents is that suddenly the place they most associate with safety — their own homes — became dangerous places to be during the war.
He said the best approach for dealing with trauma is a community approach, one that involves not just teachers and students, but parents as well.
"If it is not a joint effort, then the schools will do what they can do but it is not going to be enough," Tatar said. Although all the schools in the North — including the 30 that suffered physical damage from rocket fire — started classes as scheduled, parents kept about 14,000 home from school on Sunday and Monday in the Sderot region of southern Israel.
They said the schools had not yet been fortified to withstand rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. Some parents in the Bedouin community, citing safety problems and a lack of classrooms in their local schools, are also keeping their children home.
In the Palestinian areas, many schools did not open as scheduled on Sunday because of a teachers strike. The teachers said they would not start working until their previous salaries were paid.
The Palestinian Authority has not been able to pay its teachers since March, when Hamas took power and Israel and most of the countries who donate money to the authority cut off funds.
Inside Israel proper, many of the children most affected by the war were from economically struggling families that did not have the means to seek refuge in other parts of the country.
The Jewish Agency for Israel, together with Office Depot, gave allowances to some 15,000 such children to buy school supplies. Also, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews donated some $2 million to assist in the purchase of school clothes, books and supplies for about 40,000 needy children in the North.
At Hamiflasim, sixth-graders pulled their chairs into a semi-circle and shared what they experienced over the summer.
Their teacher, Shoshi Tsarfati, had to prod many of them to open up.
"I spent the whole time at the pool," said a boy named Gabi.
"The whole time?" Tsarfati asked.
Gabi then said that actually, he spent most of the war in a bomb shelter with his grandmother and younger sister.
Yulia, who had been collecting Katyusha shrapnel remnants earlier, told the class that she had arranged a surprise birthday party in the bomb shelter for another girl who had been upset her birthday had gone uncelebrated because of the war.
A boy shared that he was walking down the street when the siren rang out just before their school was hit. He quickly sought cover in a nearby bomb shelter. Another girl admitted she was still scared, fearing another war was sure to happen again — and soon.
The teacher tried to reassure them.
"All your responses are normal. It is the situation that was not," she said.