Seated in front of a makeshift puppet theater one rainy recent morning, about 20 girls sat in rapt attention.
“Think, think, think, girls!” say an elephant and a zebra, who are trying to help their rabbit friend deal with an enemy tiger.
The girls chime in as the animal friends come up with a plan to trap the tiger, and clap when they succeed.
The puppet theater, located in a new children’s center in Shejaiya, a neighborhood of Gaza City that saw some of the fiercest fighting between Israel and Hamas last summer, offers a refuge from the fallout of war.
“We’re using storytelling and art to teach free thinking, life skills, and ethics,” says Mohammed Isleem, who opened his home to the kids and secured funds for educators and free meals. “I created the Shejaiya Center to bring children after the war … to give them hope, and open their mind.”
His daughter-in-law, Doaa El-Jedy, was a driving force behind the center, with training in children’s education and a deep desire to help kids who have lived through so many conflicts they hardly know peace.
The center opened in November with support from USAID, allowing some 180 kids to come twice a week in groups of about 30 for storytelling, art, dancing, and free meals.
Mr. Isleem also donated the $1,200 he got to repair his home after the war in addition to private donations. But the center quickly ran out of money, and had to close temporarily before reopening with the current group of 110 kids, ages 10 to 12.
While the girls are enjoying a morning meal after the puppet show, schoolgirls passing on the street lean in through the doorway and start chanting boisterously, asking to join the center.
“We have rejected at least half of the applicants because we don’t have the capabilities to host them,” says Ms. El-Jedy.
She and Isleem say parents have noticed significant differences in their children, who encourage better habits in their elders, such as dressing nicely, and are more cooperative and less violent with others.
When the girls are asked what they’ve learned, hands shoot up.
“Respect for older people,” says one. “Discipline,” exclaims another. “Forgiveness,” offers a third. “Helping others,” another adds.
They also stand confidently and talk about what their family went through in the war, discussing topics that the teachers here say their parents are too busy or traumatized to listen to.
“The most important thing is we’re trying to motivate the kids to express their feelings,” says El-Jedy.
About 70 percent of the children at the center lost their homes in Shejaiya, which Israel’s military said was a hotbed of Hamas militant activity, weapons caches, and tunnels. Fighting on July 20 took the lives of more than 100 Palestinians, according to local estimates, as well as 13 Israeli soldiers in one of the single deadliest days for both sides.
During the war, El-Jedy was trapped in her house with her toddlers while her husband worked in the hospital.
“I felt like, what’s the future of these kids?” she says, explaining the genesis for the center. “It’s my dream for a long time.”