Tragedy in three parts: poverty, siege and displacement in Gaza
West of Gaza City lays Al-Shati refugee camp, where poverty is printed on the faces of the Palestine refugee residents. Standing amidst frayed pieces of fabric – once clothes – hanging on laundry lines, 32 year-old Ashraf smiles ironically when we ask him about his job and salary.
A father of three children, Ashraf remarks, "That’s the strangest question I've heard in a long time". He advised us not to ask this question to the camp residents, as he cannot remember anyone in his neighborhood who has had a job in years.
"I used to be a tailor in a Gazan factory until the employer went bankrupt and dozens of workers lost their jobs. Since then, I spend my time between the street and home".
Nervously tossing pebbles from one hand to the other, Ashraf sheds light on the despair facing camp residents:
"We have known unemployment and poverty since we were born in this miserable place. We are like our fathers, and I fear our children will be like us".
"The story starts when one is unable to meet the demands of one’s children as they go to school each day. "Their joy in life, their innocence, their childhoods, all have been stolen", he explains.
Ashraf continues: "When you feel incapacitated, in spite of your physical ability to work, and when you have to wait for emergency employment opportunities in order to feed your children, you start to wonder why you are here and for how long these conditions will continue".
Ashraf pauses and calls out to a friend, as an ironic smile freezes on his face: "They are asking me about employment, Samir. About jobs and life in Gaza"
Samir, 47 years old, responds: "I have eight children, with the oldest studying in the university. For eight years I have been unemployed. We live on social assistance from different sources".
He adds, "Since the Israeli labor market was closed to us, our situation has been declining, day after day. Gaza cannot absorb the large numbers of workers who used to work in Israeli factories, construction and farms. Personally, I can remember only a few days when I found work over the past five years".
"We are very tired and have lost hope in any improvement", he adds. "Yet we are better off than the people of Beit Hanoun, who share the same suffering with us, but also the additional sufferings of shelling, death and destruction"
Fayez, a 42 year-old father of three children, says that when he sees "thousands of children going to school every morning, I wonder what kind of future awaits them as long as their fathers are unable to establish a future for them".
"Even the sea adjacent to our camp is under siege", he adds, estimating that over 90 percent of camp residents are unemployed and depend on direct assistance from UNRWA or other sources. "Even the fishermen cannot fish".
Mohammed, a 40-year-old taxi driver from Jabalia refugee camp, explains that the majority of young Palestinians are looking for work as taxi drivers, which is making this profession more difficult and less rewarding.
"Is it logical that all people aspire to work as taxi drivers?!" he asks rhetorically. "Even private cars are transporting passengers these days. The most I can expect to earn per day is 40 NIS (about US $9). Can this provide for a family of eight?"
Mohammed would like to see UNRWA return to the food aid distribution system in place during the early 1960’s. "We thought the life was difficult then, but it is much worse now. Today, everyone is in need of assistance. Today we are poorer than we were fifty years ago". Indeed, over 80 percent of Gazans depend on UNRWA for assistance.
He adds, "The problem is that we do not know where we are heading and cannot escape this large prison called ‘Gaza’. Here there are no jobs, no life, no water, no electricity and no hope".
Ali is a 29 year-old who graduated from Al-Azhar University three years ago. His only wish is to wake up early in the morning and go to his work – any kind of work – or, as he describes it: "any work that can make me feel like a human being".
"We are only asking for a job, for work. What we need is nothing more than a job to be productive. Why don't they provide us with job opportunities abroad as long as Israel insists on denying us work?" wonders Ali.
"I do not want charity", he emphasizes. "I hate the hidden begging that is known as ‘assistance’. We have been turned into beggars – children and adults alike.
"I can’t get married now and I don’t have the courage to propose to any girl because I am unemployed, my father is unemployed and all my brothers are unemployed, except for one who is working in the police and has not received his pay for months by now", laments Ali.
In a traditional society where males are expected to be the providers, to get married and to pay for the wedding and the house – marriage is a very expensive rite of passage – staying a bachelor is not only a step backwards but indicates the unprecedented fraying of the social fabric of Gaza.
The personal accounts of Al-Shati camp inhabitants Ashraf, Samir, Fayez, Ali and Mohammed reflect various facets of the prism of poverty which afflicts over 87 percent of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, according to recent surveys.
One can only hope that socio-economic and general security conditions will ameliorate, in the near future, in order to ensure that the faces of Palestine refugees reflect the realization of their true potential and well-being rather than the poverty and violence they endure.