Panic & Fear Under Rocket Fire

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Chimes Israel parent, Chen Shai (sitting with three of his children), speaks to Channel 12 news about life under rocket fire in Ashkelon

Located just 9.7 km (6 miles) north of Gaza, Ashkelon was one of the hardest hit Israeli cities in the recent outbreak of violence in the ongoing Israeli–Palestinian conflict. From May 9 until May 21, Ashkelon endured 960 of the 3,400 rockets that reached Israel, with seventy-five of them falling directly inside the city.

Due to its proximity to Gaza, the people of Ashkelon had only 15 seconds to get to a shelter after hearing a siren to protect against an incoming rocket. Despite the Iron Dome’s success with 885 interceptions, two people in Ashkelon were killed and hundreds were injured.

Chimes Israel’s two early childhood centers in Ashkelon, Shulamit and Shaked, are located in four residential homes that have been repurposed to serve as daycares. They provide care and therapies for children ages six months to three-years-old with autism, developmental delays, genetic syndromes, and other disabilities.  After the ceasefire, the Ashkelon municipal inspectorate went to the centers to assess damage. They discovered and cleared several rocket and Iron Dome fragments.

Iron dome casing and rocket fragments found on Chimes Israel early childhood center playgrounds and walkways in Ashkelon

Chimes’ Early Childhood Families During Rocket Fire

Coping with the rocket fire and sheltering is traumatic for everyone, however, the Chimes families with young children dealt with increased emotional and physical hardships due to their children’s disabilities.

“The challenges of being closed-in for a long time in a protected space are intensified for toddlers with disabilities whose routines have been disrupted, said Vered Carsenti, a social worker and Chimes Israel’s Vice President and Program Director. “Children are dependent on their parents for emotional assurance. When they see their parents’ anxiety as they hustle everyone into the shelter, all confidence is undermined.”

With no safe room in their apartment, the family of the Shaked center’s three-year-old Roy, who has autism, was forced to shelter in his building’s basement bomb shelter during the rocket fire. For this young child with autism, the overwhelming sensory stimulation of the booming rocket noise along with the neighbors’ hysteria, triggered nonstop meltdowns with screaming, crying, and lashing out. 

Another little Shaked center girl, Emily, lost the freedom to move around a room during the entire 11 days of Gazan hostility. Unable to walk without a standing walker, the family could not risk using it during the entire conflict. This is because it took more time to get in and out of the walker than the 15 seconds allotted to make it down to the shelter. Because the walker is also training her to walk independently, her progress at the center also suffered a setback.

Israeli Media Outlets Speak with Chimes Ashkelon Parents

The plight of Chimes Israel’s Ashkelon children was also covered in the Israeli media during the conflict.  Adi Pollack, the mother of two-and-a-half-year-old Hallel Pollack, who has Down syndrome, told Ynet News and Galgalatz radio how her family of five children fled Ashkelon because the entire family in one little safe room was unbearable.

“The situation arose in which we rushed to pack our luggage between sirens. Running away from home is something no one should feel. We are also trying not to convey this hysteria to our little one, Hallel, who was born with Down syndrome. As soon as she hears an alarm she’s conditioned to just crawl back to the safe room.”

Chen Shai, father of four, including two children with disabilities, told Channel 12 TV news, “coping with this conflict has not been easy. It is about coming in and not panicking, because it’s the first thing you want to do, but you can’t do it.” Regarding two-year-old Itamar with cerebral palsy who attends Shaked, Shai explained, “Itamar’s therapy thing has been compromised as well.  We’re a few days into the operation and his progress is deteriorating.”

Itamar Chen (left) and Hallel Pollack (right) of Chimes Israel rehabilitative early childhood centers in Ashkelon

Extracurricular Support during the Conflict

While the centers had to close their doors during the conflict, Chimes Israel professionals kept tabs on the families and provided support. The social workers contacted the parents to identify needs, and Chimes Israel professionals helped provide individual solutions distressful situations.

Chimes Israel professionals found several families free temporary living accommodations in private homes and hotels north of Ashkelon. They also connected several families to resilience centers, which offer free psychotherapy for people who live close to Gaza experiencing panic attacks and various symptoms of trauma.

At Chimes’ early childhood centers, teachers sent the parents the class song sheets to encourage using music to uplift their spirits. They also maintained contact to keep abreast of any emotional, behavioral, or physical issues about their disability or the situation of staying home and sheltering.

The Post Trauma Return to Routine

As soon as it was allowed, the children returned to the centers for a full day. In opposition to the stressful siren and rocket fire noises, the staff deliberately set out to create a pleasant, quiet, and calm atmosphere, playing classical music or with teachers singing soothing lullabies. They also implemented new sensory activities to calm ongoing anxieties and allow the children to vent tensions. 

Due to the lack of daily physical therapy for the previous 11 days, many of the children returned to center limp and simply laying on the floor — unable to hold themselves up as they did in the past. Prior to the conflict, two-year-old Leah, with significant developmental delays, had finally begun sitting upright on her own with the help of physical therapy at the Shaked Center. After the many days at home without any rehabilitative treatment, she came back to the center only able to roll from side to side again. 

The physiotherapists and their team of assistants immediately returned each child to their routine of treatments, each according to the individual habilitation plan (IHP), to bring them back to the progress they had achieved before the conflict.

The social workers and emotional therapists led discussions for all staff to manage their own post trauma anxiety as well as the children’s. The session included sharing experiences, as well as relaxation and coping strategies for dealing with stressful situations. Some of the employees also met with the social workers and therapists individually, to help deal with their own mental issues that arose from the conflict.