From out of the dark, light

From out of the dark, light

By: Fadi O. Al-Naji, We Are Not Numbers

al-Shati Refugee Camp

al-Shati Refugee Camp

It was dark inside the house. The weather was steaming hot and since the electricity had been out for seven hours, fans were not an option. Nothing but a small, concrete box with one virtual slit for a window, it reminded me of an oven. Only the dim light from Walaa's phone screen relieved the gloom. She couldn't even turn on the built-in flashlight, only 10% charge remained, and she needed to save it to call her husband before he returned from work as a taxi driver at 2 a.m. It was just 10 p.m., and until then, she was alone.

Walaa Al-Nawajha, 23, is seven-months pregnant and feeling exhausted, aggravated by toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection that gave her a severe headache, high temperature and a chronic cough. Yet the still heat kept her from sleeping.

The young mother lives among the narrow alleys of the al-Shati (“beach”) camp, the most densely populated refugee community in the Gaza Strip, west of Gaza City. While she tried to lay still, outside children escaped the confines of their own cement blocks to play in the streets. Entire families sat on their stoops with their neighbors, chatting until the electricity came back.

Suddenly, Walaa started coughing heavily, her heart beating fast. She tried to take a deep breath to control her coughing, but to no avail. She called her husband, but the battery shut down. She tried to yell for help, but the children’s shouts were too loud. It felt as if she was on an isolated island, floating in the middle of her city. Death seemed close, and she feared for the unborn baby within.

Walaa’s cough slowly petered out and she fell into a deep sleep. She recalls: "What a surreal night it was. I literally felt it was my time, that I’d die a silent death. I was so drenched in sweat my pillow was wet. It was like I was so hot I was about to explode.”

Walaa's son watches TV, thanks to the SunBox system. (Photo by Sanad Latifa)

Walaa's son watches TV, thanks to the SunBox system. (Photo by Sanad Latifa)

Wala'a’s biggest challenge in coping with her condition and life, in general, is the frequent electricity outages. She never uses LED lights, since fires have erupted when the battery explodes. Thus, when the electricity shuts off due to lack of fuel, she spends most of the time in the dark, using only her phone's flashlight. When guests visit, she sometimes lights a candle, although that’s a fire hazard as well. She is careful to place it in the middle of the floor, away from flammable curtains and furniture. "My phone is my life. When it's off, life is off," she explains.

Walaa even relies on her phone to help her 6-year-old son Hassan do his homework, as well as to light his way to the bathroom at night. One night, Hassan went to the bathroom alone, holding his mother's phone as a flashlight while she slept. Suddenly, while he was taking a shower, the phone rang—automatically shutting off the light. He screamed, crying, "Mom! Mom! Come here! I beg you, hurry up!" Walaa woke up terrified.

Fortunately, Walaa recently received what she considers a “miracle”: a SunBox system.  The SunBox solar-powered panels and devices were developed by a Gazan engineer, Majd Mashharawi, 25. It enables Walaa to charge the family’s phones and laptops, turn on the TV, access the internet and—most importantly—keep the lights on.

This solar power system is desperately needed in Gaza, but although Majd’s company keeps the cost low, many people still can't afford it without the help of the American NGO Rebuilding Alliance. Its charitable program, "It's Time for Light," provides impoverished families like hers with the solar-powered lanterns and panels at no charge. To date, 10 needy families have received solar-panel units.  Lamps have been given to 35,600 others, and 20,000 more were scheduled for distribution this summer.

After the SunBox panels were installed, says Walaa, she no longer suffers during the electricity blackouts. In the summer, she can use the fan at any time and her son can do his homework. Her phone remains charged, so she can make emergency phone calls. Even some of her neighbors visit her to watch TV or give her their phones to charge.

"The solar panels are the most precious gift,” she says. Now, my nights are not so dark. And most of all, they are safe."

Syrian refugees in Gaza are 'twice-victimized’

Syrian refugees in Gaza are 'twice-victimized’

By: Mahmoud Alnaouq, We Are Not Numbers

The newly trained Syrian refugees in Gaza! (Photos by Sanad Latifa)

The newly trained Syrian refugees in Gaza! (Photos by Sanad Latifa)

“My brother participated in protests against Bashar al-Assad, in 2011. When the war began, Assad’s security services went looking for him, so we fled to Gaza, where we have relatives. We hoped to escape death. But then he was killed in the 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza while volunteering as a paramedic," recounts Ahmed Abo Shabab, 24. He could not escape his fate.

Ahmed’s family has been shaped by war. His parents fled Gaza for Syria during Israel’s war on Palestinians in 1967, when the West Bank and East Jerusalem were occupied. Ahmed, who studied law in Damascus, and his siblings grew up in the country and had a decent life—until civil war broke out. When Assad’s jets bombed their house, relatives in Gaza encouraged them to return to their original home.

We Are Not Numbers joined Rebuilding Alliance to share the stories of Ahmed and others to highlight its campaign to ease their poverty by providing job training and employment assistance. Until I began helping with this project, I didn’t know there are Syrian refugees in Gaza! Much to my surprise, I learned that there are about 275 Syrian families (about 2,000 individuals, mostly of Palestinian origin) who have sought refuge here since 2011.

The project, implemented by the Gaza-based Youth Vision Society, focuses on 32 university graduates who had been unable to find jobs. A weeklong training equipped them with the “soft skills” needed to find labor opportunities in the Gazan market, such as effective communication, time management, CV writing, and personal marketing. Now, they are obtaining an actual experience that can be listed on applications via a two-month “internship”—for which they receive $250 a month.

Mohammed al-Jaja

Mohammed al-Jaja

"Syrian refugees in Gaza are in great need," agrees Mohammed al-Jaja, project manager for YVS. "They are a double-victimized group."

Nawal Zayed, 45, whose daughter, Amany, is one of the beneficiaries of the project, echoes this sentiment. She came with her family to Gaza in 2012, to be with their relatives. "We feel stranded. We cannot get jobs and we can’t travel," Nawal says.

Mona al-Habash, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Gaza’s Al-Quds Open University after arriving from Syria, also was among those who completed the training. Another is Qusay Jaradah, who earned a degree in information technology from the Islamic University in Gaza. He hasn’t held a job since 2011.

In contrast, Ahmed already had earned his degree before he arrived. Yet he still has been unable to get a job since he arrived two years ago. "My family and I are living in a caravan (trailer). We depend on aid to live," he says.

A year ago, Ahmed married a Gazan woman; all he needs now to be content, he says, is "to a decent income so I can provide for my family." And, in fact, this project allowed him to achieve his dream: His internship is with a local law office, whose proprietor is so happy with him that he has offered Ahmed a permanent job.

Mohammed al-Jaja notes that because unemployment is higher among females, 60% of the project's beneficiaries are women. Fortunately, two of the women in the program were assigned to the Palestinian Independent Commission for Development, which plans to employ them for a future project.

"Although the job experience we arranged for them may only be for two months (if they are not kept on by their internship “host”), we expect this project will increase their ability to secure additional employment afterward," he explains. "These people [Syrian refugees in Gaza] are left behind by all of the other NGOs. We are highlighting their needs with this project.”

Culture in Gaza grows like a phoenix from the ashes

Culture in Gaza grows like a phoenix from the ashes

By Manar El-Sheikh, We Are Not Numbers

A young man leaps across the stage like a wounded bird who seeks to fly, matching his movements with the music that fills the air and courses through his body. The tune is both melancholy and hopeful at the same time: It evokes the spirit of Rachel Corrie, the 20-year-old American activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer March 16, 2003, when she attempted to stop the demolition of a Palestinian doctor’s home in Gaza. Her photo is the backdrop for the dance.

The performance was a highlight of the Amal Spring of Peace Festival, held to honor the memory of Rachel and produced by Gaza’s Palace of Palestinian Culture (Qaser Althaqafa Alfilistini). The word “palace” means, in English, a large and impressive building serving as the official residence of a king or archbishop. While it means the same in Arabic, it has another, symbolic meaning: a picturesque home for talented artists.

Photos by Mohammed Mansour

Photos by Mohammed Mansour

However, currently this troupe of performers is without a place. Until August 8, 2018, the group of singers, musicians and dancers practiced and performed at the al-Meshal Cultural Center in Gaza, along with other local entertainers. On that day, it was bombed by the Israeli air force, which claimed the 18-year-old gathering place was used by Hamas’ internal security services.

“The demolition of the Al-Meshal Cultural Center left us without any costumes or a place to train. We used to have more than 100 costumes, but now we have none,” says Alaa Mattar, one of the founders.

Gaza now lacks any facility with the space and range of facilities needed to house larger-scale productions. Instead, the palace troupe and others must travel around Gaza like nomads, seeking the best places to practice and perform. To call attention to their plight, a number of the performers sang and danced the dabke amidst the rubble of the cultural center. It was more than three months, however, before the troupe began its normal festival schedule, schedule, averaging one to three events a month. They dance and sing for free, relying on whatever jobs they can get for money if they are older.

The palace troupe was founded in 2016 by Alaa, Mohammed Baroud and several other friends to preserve and nurture Palestinian culture. What distinguishes the group from other performers is its merging of modern, popular music with traditional folk tunes. In Palestine, dabka is traditionally danced to folk tunes, like Ala Dal’ona and Zareef at Toul. However, the Palace troupe dances dabka to pop and even Indian music. In addition, while it's become common to see young men doing hip hop, contemporary dance—emphasizing improvisation, unlike the strict, structured rules of ballet—still is rare in Gaza. This is the type of dancer the troupe performed in “Amal Spring of Peace.”

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 The group’s first financial help came from the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace & Justice in America, founded by Rachel’s parents. It started with just a small core of performers. Today, however, it boasts 80 singers, dancers, actors and painters ages 10-24. Of those, about 30 are females. One of them is Amal Tabash, 20 years old.

In Gaza’s conservative society, young women are discouraged from singing or acting. Relatives criticize them and nasty comments often are left on their Facebook pages. That means once they reach 18, female members of the troupe typically stop performing and teach younger entertainers instead.

“People here in Gaza find it awkward and socially unacceptable for a girl to cover her head and body as she should while also singing or acting,” explains Amal, who also studies pharmacy at Al-Azhar University. Fortunately, however, she has the support of her parents. “I intend to continue. The support of my fellow players and the sound of applause after we finish performing are enough reward for me.”

On the day of the peace festival, Rebuilding Alliance gave one of its portable Little Sun solar lamps to each member of the troupe. Reem al-Kabareeti, one of the other female members, noted that she has always been afraid of the dark, but the solar light will help her sleep in peace. 

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The Universal Fear: When Your Child is Ill

The Universal Fear: When Your Child is Ill
By Hanin Elholy, We Are Not Numbers

It was 10 p.m. and the electricity was still off. My youngest brother, Yazan, complained, saying, "Hey, Hanin, I’m getting a headache. Look how dim this light is; it only lights one page of my science book. Do you want me to have to wear glasses?” I laughed at the logic this 8-year-old-child used as an excuse to stop studying.

I love children--especially their mischievous natures, which is why I welcomed the invitation to join a fellow writer from We Are Not Numbers to visit Al-Rantissi Children’s Hospital for a Rebuilding Alliance initiative. The American NGO distributes portable solar lamps to needy families and this time the alliance’s partner, the Youth Vision Society, had decided to bring some of the lanterns (little suns) to sick children.

The children's hospital is named in honor of Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, known as the "Lion of Palestine." He is famous for co-founding the Hamas political movement, but what most people don’t know is that he also was a children's doctor. As I stepped into the reception hall, I detected what I used to call a “hospital smell”; later, I realized it is the odor of antiseptics and thus is natural. A 22-year-old mother named Aya* was feeding her 7-month-old daughter in one of the rooms. I sat on the bed beside her and we started talking.

"Five days after I gave birth to Alaa*, I noticed some dark, almost glowing spots on her body, especially her legs and neck,” she recalled. “I was told they are caused by blood clots under the skin. When she is accidently injured, they erupt into open sores and take a long time to heal.”

One of the other children, Noora, with the Little Sun solar lights we distributed that day.

One of the other children, Noora, with the Little Sun solar lights we distributed that day.

Fondling Alaa’s soft, brown hair, Aya explained that the disease, protein C deficiency, is the same illness that took her first daughter. Protein C helps regulate blood clots and is vital in healing wounds. Any shortage can lead to blood clots and easy bruising. But when children inherit the gene for the condition from both parents, it is fatal.

Aya’s first child, also a daughter, was born with the defective gene as well. Aya and her husband applied more than six times to to take her to Israel for treatment but were rejected each time.

“I do not know why! We are not Hamas and my daughter was not going to bomb their tanks!” Aya recalled. “And guess what? On the same day the officials responded, finally asking us to provide a medical report, my daughter died.”  

Aya and her family are not alone. Israeli authorities deny many requests to leave Gaza for medical treatment in the occupied West Bank or Israel. For instance, while 700 patients were denied permission to leave Gaza via the Erez checkpoint in 2017, more than 1,800 were refused in 2018, says the World Health Organization.

“Now, I feel helpless every time Alaa faints, coughs up blood or cries because her chest hurts,” Aya says with tears in her eyes. “I am living the same miserable days as before, waking up during the miserable nights. And I am afraid of facing the same miserable end-- losing my second daughter.”

 Four months ago, permission was received for Alaa to leave Gaza for treatment, but Aya was not allowed to accompany her daughter for “security purposes,” so the child’s grandmother went instead. Now, the family is applying for permission again, hoping to save Alaa’s sight. Anticoagulants and other, specialized drugs are needed but not available in Gaza. Gaza’s health ministry reported in September that around 100 out of 143 medicines needed for primary health care were totally unavailable. Reasons for the shortage include the Israeli blockade and insufficient financial allocations by the Palestinian Authority, due to the rivalry between the political factions.

Still, the only way to save Alaa’s life for the longer term is a liver transplant, which would cost $26,000. “We will need a miracle to keep her alive,” says Aya.

Al-Rantisi officially opened following the 2008-2009 Israeli war on Gaza. Children are a large percentage of Palestinian society: According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, about 50 percent of the population of 2 million is children. Alaa is only one among many who turn to Al-Rantisi as their last resort.

Visiting the hospital at the same time was a group of female secondary school students playing with some children in the rooms. The nurse told us that participants in many youth initiatives visit the hospital to entertain the children as well. I was glad to hear that; I can’t imagine being alone and sick as a child.

When I entered the dialysis section of the hospital, I saw a 5-year-old child with a big smile despite the fact that he was hooked up to a large device, receiving intravenous fluids. When I gave him the Little Sun solar light, he almost jumped out of bed in excitement, until his grandmother calmed him down and opened the gift for him. She told me, “We were told during his mother's pregnancy that one of Medhat’s kidneys would not work and the other would function at only 20 percent. However, after he was born, doctors realized that even the 20 percent did not work well. They decided to give him antibiotics, but that was a big mistake. It turned him to a deaf-mute forever.”

Medhat and me (all photos by Mohammed Mansour)

Medhat and me (all photos by Mohammed Mansour)

Meanwhile, Medhat requires continued care. Usually, his grandmother accompanies him to the hospital twice a week and whenever he needs emergency care. Sometimes he has to stay hospitalized for 7-40 days.

“I am the one responsible for him now, since his father is looking for a job and his mother must take care of his other four sisters. I travelled with him three times to Israel and once to Egypt, but all the visits were in vain.”

According to Al-Rantisi director, Dr Mohammed Abu-Silmiya, 48 children are undergoing weekly kidney dialysis there, but their health is deteriorating due to the shortage of medications. For example, Neupogen is a medicine that bolsters such children’s immunity to protect them from infection. But the hospital had run out of stock as it requires 1,000 Neupogen injections monthly, but had only 100 injections available during the previous two months.

As I talked with Medhat’s grandmother, he finally located the Little Sun’s switch and it lit up. He waved it toward his grandmother, who smiled, hugged him tightly and kissed his forehead. She said, “Thank you so much for drawing this smile on his face. Thank you for this sun and words of hope. I hope his father is able to earn the money needed to give Medhat one of his kidneys soon.”

When I returned home that day, I gave a Little Sun to my brother Yazan, who thought it was a game at first. After I explained to him that we use it when there is no light, he has been eager to have the electricity off at night from that day on.

 

After listening to these sad stories, I needed to release some negative energy. So, I decided to have fun. I noticed a children’s toy room in the hospital and I let the child inside me out for a bit! Despite the sadness, I was glad to have left every room with a smile drawn on each child’s face. Thank you, Rebuilding Alliance, for giving me (and them) this experience.

 

 

 

Working women of Gaza: unsung heroes

Working women of Gaza: unsung heroes

By Khuloud Rabah Sulaiman,We Are Not Numbers                          

The declining economy and rise in poverty have made it more culturally acceptable for women in Gaza to join the workforce. The government in the Strip, which is a leading source of jobs with decent pay, is starved for funds—causing it to slash salaries by 40-50 percent. Exacerbating the impact, rival political party Fatah has cut the salaries of its own employees in Gaza by up to half. This drastically reduced income for so many men has led many Gaza women to seek work as well.

However, formal jobs with livable pay are scarce, which means even families with working women have trouble putting food on their tables. Nearly 80 percent of Gaza’s 2 million residents are dependent on UN assistance, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

That is why the Women’s Program Center in Rafah, in the far south of Gaza and the most impoverished area of the strip, focuses on support for women and their families, offering job training, financial aid and other support programs.

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Falsteen Alabsie, 27, works as the center’s accountant but it can only pay her $300 a month. Her husband works for the UN refugee agency (UNRWA), which pays nearly $700 a month, a decent salary in Gaza. However, most of his salary must be used to repay the loans he took to purchase a plot of land on which they want to build a house. They have five children and live in a small apartment with just two bedrooms.

“I only buy specific kinds of fruit with low prices, such as oranges, bananas and apples, because we have so many other needs and my salary can hardly cover them,” Falsteen says.

Falsteen was surprised when Riyadh, 8, asked for money instead of the toy they planned to buy for his birthday.

“But we gave him 10 shekels and he quickly went to the grocery store and bought strawberries! He loves them the most and we are unable to buy them. Then, he distributed strawberries evenly to all of us,” she recalls.

Faten Nofel, a 13-year-old who participates in the center activities, doesn’t receive any pocket money like the other students, who use it for a snack at school.

“My dad, who works for the Palestinian Authority, receives only 1,000 shekels ($279) a month due to the cuts to salaries,” Faten explains “His salary is too small to cover our living costs and we have to pay tuition fees for my two brothers studying in university. We couldn’t afford to send my sister to university when she graduated high school last year. I wish I could grow up quickly to become a successful working woman and be able to help my dad with living costs.”

Somaya Abu Rezeq, whose father works as a teacher for UNRWA is in the same situation, settling for a sandwich and a piece of fruit at school.

“I always have either an apple or orange because they are the cheapest fruit in Gaza,” she says. “My dad can rarely bring us bananas, strawberries or mangoes and other expensive fruit.”

Somaya has 11 siblings, three of whom are studying in university.

Azhar Azoom belongs to one of the most vulnerable families in Rafah. Azhar is married to an unemployed man and has a daughter, Heba, 18. She says her husband refuses to even try to find any kind of work, but she cannot ask him for divorce, since cultural norms and current local law mean Heba would have to live with her father until she marries.

“I am forced to stay married to him just to stay with my only daughter,” she says, adding that, “to punish me, he will not let her live with me.”

Since her husband doesn’t work anymore, the family lives in an unfurnished house, owning only three blankets that don’t offer much warmth in the winter. Adding insult to injury, they have no water in the house, since they cannot pay the required connection fees. “I always ask my neighbors for some buckets of water. I feel embarrassed to ask, but I am forced to do it."

For three years, Azhar has embroidered clothes for the Women’s Programs Center, earning 100 shekels ($28) each month—not enough to pay for a weekly supply of food and their daughter’s transportation to college. Heba studies nursing and needs 300 shekels ($84) a month to travel back and forth, plus tuition and fees.

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“I am in debt to my relatives and neighbors,” said Azhar. “I try to repay them after I receive cash aid from UNRWA or the Palestinian Authority, but then nothing remains for our basic needs and I am forced to borrow again. Sometimes, my daughter and I eat bread alone; we go to sleep starving.”       

Another challenge they face are regular electricity blackouts: eight hours on, followed by eight hours off. Fortunately, Azhar received two portable solar lights from Rebuilding Alliance, helping her make handmade products to sell and Heba to do homework.

“They are a blessing; I am now able to embroider clothes and earn some money, and Heba can do her university tasks in the evening when there is no electricity,” she explained.

Azhar and Falasteen are examples of just two of the working women in Gaza; their families, and really all of Gaza, depend on them.

 

Read WANN: Small joys brighten lives drenched in poverty

Small joys brighten lives drenched in poverty

By Fadi O. Al-Najy, We Are Not Numbers

When life is drenched in poverty, the tiniest detail is a challenge. Um [mother of] Mohammed Moqdad, is a case in point.

It was 7 p.m. when I arrived at her home, accompanied by a group from We Are Not Numbers and our partner NGO, Rebuilding Alliance. Um Mohammed, a mother of six daughters and one living son, lives in the Al-Shati (“Beach”) Camp, one of the most densely populated refugee communities in the Gaza Strip, located west of Gaza City. The camp is well known for its puzzling, meandering alleys, with tiny, concrete-box homes seemingly randomly packed on each other.

Um Mohammed with two of her daughters and their new, portable solar lights. (Photos by Sanad Latefa)

Um Mohammed with two of her daughters and their new, portable solar lights. (Photos by Sanad Latefa)

After finding our way through the dark silence that hung over the narrow streets, we stepped through the rusty door as it creaked open. Inside, there was no furniture, only two couches and a table in the middle. The floor was cracked and the ceiling consisted of mere sheets of asbestos with holes that allowed rain to infiltrate, leaving the walls wet and mossy-seeming.

The room was curtained off into sections, as if to imitate rooms. There was only one, small window through which water seeped, staining the wallpaper that tried to cover the concrete. I’d never seen such poverty; I felt as if I was on an island floating in the middle of my city.

I gazed at the pictures of two children on the wall.

‘‘They went and didn’t come back. They’ve just gone, for good!’’ Um Mohammed said simply.

Um Mohammed’s eldest son, Mohammed, was killed during the 2008 Israeli war on Gaza.  The 17-year-old had left the house to visit his cousin in Tel al-Hawa, a neighborhood in western Gaza City. He was killed while trying to extinguish a shell containing deadly white phosphorous dropped by Israeli warplanes. The boy didn’t know that such shells become more flammable when doused with water.

A photo of one of the family's dead sons hangs on the wall.

A photo of one of the family's dead sons hangs on the wall.

Her second son, Baraa’, died in the 2014 Israeli conflict when he was only 6 years old. He had left the house during a ceasefire on July 28; he had wanted to play with his friends on the first day Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim holiday that marks the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Baraa’ ran to a nearby playground, where he was killed along with 13 other kids. Some ceasefire.

‘’I sometimes panic when my third son spends too many hours away from me,” admits Um Mohammed. “I am so afraid I will lose my only remaining son.’’

Mahmoud, 21, left school when he was 18 because the family can’t afford to pay the fees. The young man also suffers from impaired hearing, but they can’t afford medical treatment.

The lack of funds for medical care is particularly tragic for Um Mohammed’s 2-year-old granddaughter, who was born with cerebral atrophy. The little girl could be helped with surgery, but Israel has not allowed the family out of Gaza so she can receive it.

Um Mohammed and her family depend mainly on humanitarian aid from the UN refugee agency (UNRWA) and the government of Qatar. Um Mohammed’s husband, Akram Moqdad, worked in construction inside Israel prior to the second intifada (uprising) in 2000. However, he has been jobless ever since.

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One of the family’s biggest challenges is the frequent electricity outages caused by fuel shortages. When the power goes out at night, the family descends into utter darkness, dependent on their phones’ flashlights.

‘’We can’t even afford to buy a candle, much less LED lights,’’ Um Mohammed explained. ‘’Our life gets worse day after day. We spend all of our time trying to secure our basic needs, such as food and medical treatment.”

Fortunately, Rebuilding Alliance and its charitable program “It’s Time for Light,” gave the family portable, solar-powered lamps.

‘’My son uses these lights when he goes to the market after the sun goes down. And they help my daughters do their homework,” said Um Mohammed. “This reminds me there still are good people in this world who care about humans.’’

 

Rare diseases hard to treat in Gaza

Rare diseases hard to treat in Gaza

By Nadya Siyam, We Are Not Numbers

In the heart of the Gaza Strip, in al-Shati Refugee Camp, live two children infected with PKU (phenylketonuria), a genetic disease that wreaks havoc on their bodies. Jehad and Jana Abu Askar, 3 and 2 years old respectively, were diagnosed with PKU about a week after birth. It is a serious condition everywhere, but particularly in Gaza, where specialty medicines are in short supply. And the diagnoses changed the life of their family forever.

Jehad and Jana Abu Askar with plenty of phenyl-free foods

Jehad and Jana Abu Askar with plenty of phenyl-free foods

Children with PKU have difficulty metabolizing an amino acid found in protein called phenylalanine. The amino acid is central to the function of the body’s nervous system. Without proper treatment, phenylalanine accumulates, especially around the brain, causing profound damage. The consequences include developmental delays beginning at an early age, becoming more severe with time.

Until recently, the test for PKU wasn’t available in Gaza. New parents often had no idea anything was wrong with their children until the symptoms, like IQ loss, were advanced. Sanabel, the mother of Jehad and Jana, told me, “I know a number of mothers whose kids suffered mental retardation or died at the age of 10 without being diagnosed.”

Now the test is available in Gaza and administered within the first week of a child’s birth. According to the Ministry of Health, the number of people with PKU in Gaza is approximately 232 and this number increases each year.

However, married couples are not routinely tested to identify whether they carry the gene for PKU. Jadad’s and Jana’s parents didn’t know they were at risk, since no one in either family had suffered PKU.

“The first time we heard the term PKU was when Jehad was born, and we received this news with shock,” Sanabel said.

There is no cure for PKU. However, it can be controlled with a protein-restricted diet, low in foods like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes, bread, milk and cheese. They get the nutrients they need from protein by drinking a phenyl-free milk and other such custom foods. Regular blood tests determine whether phenyl levels in the blood are within a safe range.

This is when life for PKU children in Gaza becomes tenuous, since the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has said since March 2017 that it cannot afford to send in phenyl-free foods.

Jana was 4 months old when imports stopped. At that age, she totally depended on custom milk. She could receive nutrients only via IV and her health deteriorated as she rapidly lost weight and suffered skin abrasions.

“It was as if her skin was consuming itself. She was slowly and painfully dying before our eyes,” Sanabel remembered. After a number of failed attempts, Jana finally received a permit to travel to Jerusalem, where she received care at al-Makassed Palestinian Hospital. “A miracle happened: My daughter was saved,” Sanabel said.

Jana has gradually regained her health. She travelled to al-Makassed Hospital another three times until she made a full recovery. But that didn’t change the fact that the milk was not available in Gaza.

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Months later, several charities and private institutions began to work together to bring the phenyl-free food into Gaza. However, the amounts were small and the price was high.

“Each can of milk cost $78 and we need at least two cans a week for both children,” said Sanabel. The salary of the children’s father cannot cover the price of even half the needed amount every month, assuming the milk is available. “Sometimes I have to give my children smaller portions of the milk to make it stretch as long as possible.”

Sanabel’s father, Waleed, works at a medical relief organization and said, “The milk isn’t some luxury health product. No matter how old the children become they will never be able to live without it. In fact, as they grow older, they need to drink larger amounts of the milk to make up for the nutrients their diet lacks.”

Sanabel made the effort to educate herself about PKU. She found a number of PKU Facebook groups, which post the latest updates on the condition. Sanabel said the Facebook groups help her feel less alone; the members have become something like a family. They share their diets, blood tests and stories with each other, forming a small community of their own.

Through those groups, Sanabel learned there are new foods tailored to people with PKU, ranging from pasta, to chicken soups, to eggs and biscuits. Scientists have developed a way of removing phenyl from these foods and make them similar in look and taste to unaltered variants. Unfortunately, those “custom foods” aren’t available in Gaza or the West Bank.

“I have contacted a Saudi company that is the main distributer of German free-phenyl products to Arab countries in the Middle East and it said they can’t export to Palestine,” said Sanabel. These foods have become standard for PKU patients worldwide, yet for Gazans they remain an elusive luxury.

According to Inji Shaheen, the physician who cares for Jehad and Janna, health organizations have issued several appeals to the Ministry of Health asking for more custom food for patients with PKU. However, the blockade, the lack of financial support from the Palestinian Authority and the rarity of the disorder have remained challenges.

Sanabel knows how much difference those foods will make in the lives of her children.

“They would feel less different from their peers if they could eat normal food,” she said. “I don’t have enough words to tell you how delighted I feel when I find free-phenyl biscuits in the market; I know for them this is like a unexpected gift.”

At home, Sanabel and her husband eat the same foods as their children. They avoid buying any food their children aren’t allowed to eat, so Jehad and Jana won’t feel deprived.

Jehad and Jana live in a family building where they often see their cousins who are close to them in age.

“My children always want to visit their cousins and play with them, and they feel frustrated when I keep them home,” said Sanabel. “Whenever they see their cousins eating chips, deserts or even a cheese sandwich, they start crying, asking for some.”

Whenever any of their cousins has a birthday party, Sanabel tries to distract her children from hearing the loud music mixed with laughter downstairs.

“Every kind of food served in any party or gathering is full of phenyl, and my children go crazy if I try to prevent them from trying a colorful candy, for example,” she sighed.

The family used to live on the ground floor, until it became unbearable to see passersby carrying plastic bags from the market with foods the children can’t eat. They switched apartments to be as far away from others as possible.

“It breaks my heart that they can’t live normally like other children, but I can’t risk letting them go out,” explained Sanabel.

What frustrates her most is the lack of awareness and understanding of the disease. Although she constantly talks to people about it, they surprise her by saying things like, “come on, let them try chocolate; one time won’t matter much.”

When it’s time for kindergarten, Sanabel will have to go with them every day. “I can’t keep them away from people forever, but I have to make sure they are safe until they are aware enough to depend on themselves.”

Sanabel’s family and others who must cope with PKU may soon receive relief. We are raising funds to help purchase phenyl-free foods.

Hope Lights the Darkness of a Gaza Refugee Camp

Hope Lights the Darkness of a Gaza Refugee Camp

By Fadi O. Al-Naji, We Are Not Numbers

One day I found myself weaving my way through the zigzagging, narrow alleys of the al-Shati refugee camp in western Gaza City. It is the most densely populated refugee camp in the Gaza Strip and I was heading to the home of Ahmed al-Aswad. In fact, the streets were so narrow, and the neighborhood was so crowded that I could hear what the residents were chattering about inside their apartments and smell what they were cooking.

Photo credit: Mohammed Mansour

Photo credit: Mohammed Mansour

Then I stepped into Ahmed’s house and was plunged into utter darkness. The electricity was out and it literally seemed like a haunted cave! His entire living space is just a 12 x 6 square-meter (129 x 65 square-foot) concrete box. There isn’t even one window through which natural light or fresh air can enter. I began to sweat in just a few seconds, sweltering in the blazing heat. The floor was bare concrete and the toilet and shower were packed into a 0.5 x 1 square-meter (5 x 11 square-foot) room, without a door or even drape. With no room left over for a kitchen, all eating supplies—such as cups, dishes and flatware—are stored in one big container. As for sleeping arrangements, there is only one bed for the seven-member family: Ahmed, his wife, three girls and twin boys. This, I thought, is true misery.

I visited Ahmed’s home as part of the We Are Not Numbers team that supports American NGO Rebuilding Alliance, which—as one of its activities—distributes portable solar lamps to those in need. Ahmed hurried to bring us the two chairs he had, leaving three of us standing. I could tell this humiliated Ahmed. Meanwhile, it was so dim inside I could barely recognize the faces around me. All they had to lighten the gloom were two small LED devices. I used my phone flashlight while looking around, observing.

The 38-year-old Ahmed is originally from the Mediterranean coastal city of Haifa, in what is now Israel. His ancestors were revolutionaries. His father, Waleed al-Aswad, has lived in exile since the 1970s, since his name is on Israel’s most-wanted list along with other members of the the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). In addition, his uncle is the martyr Mohammed al-Aswad, a prominent PFLP military leader known as "the Guevara of Gaza."

In the aftermath of the 1948 Nakba, in which an estimated 700,000 Palestinians were forced to leave their homes to make way for Israel, Ahmed's parents fled to a refugee camp in Jordan.

"When I was a child, our life as refugees in Jordan was intolerable. So, we came to live here in Gaza," Ahmed sighed. "My father used to tell me about my grandfather's life in Haifa. He owned a ‘palace’ overlooking the sea. Our life today has been reduced to a small box."

When Gaza's Great Return March launched to demand freedom from Israeli control, Ahmed felt it was his moral and national duty to participate in the weekly protests along the border. However, he was shot with an exploding bullet by Israeli snipers while standing near the fence and raising a Palestinian flag. The bullet passed through his right leg and lodged in the left, causing severe damage.

Photo credit: Mohammed Mansour

Photo credit: Mohammed Mansour

That wasn’t Ahmed's first time to venture near the fence and be shot as a result. In 2015, when Palestinians in the West Bank protested Israel's deployment of forces and installation of cameras, metal detectors and iron gates in Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Ahmed demonstrated at Gaza's border until he was shot in his left leg. Due to the cost implications of his injury, he was forced keep his 14-year-old twin sons home from school. They looked for jobs to keep their family afloat.

Until his second injury, Ahmed went to the march every Friday on crutches. His biggest fear is U.S. President Trump's cuts to funding for UNRWA, the U.N. agency that provides 5.3 million Palestinian refugees with basic needs and humanitarian services.

"Ever since I heard the news, I couldn't resist worrying; we totally rely on the four sacks of flour, cooking oil and rice we receive from the agency. If UNRWA stopped its supplies, my family would starve," he explained.

Since the house is so small, Ahmed's wife, Rajaa', spends most of the day on the outdoor step, breathing the fresh air and chatting with her neighbors. Ten-year-old Guevara, named for her uncle's nickname, suffers in other ways. Since Israel’s last major offensive in 2014, she feels fear when darkness falls at night and the electricity is out. She remembers the sound of Israeli bombs that often came at night. She takes some comfort from the solar lamp given to the family by Rebuilding Alliance, called Nur al-Amal (light of hope). Rajaa’ says Guevara is mesmerized by these lanterns. When Ahmed first brought one home, she literally jumped up with joy. 

Photo Credit: Moahmmed Mansour

Photo Credit: Moahmmed Mansour

‘’A million thanks to Rebuilding Alliance for granting us these nice lanterns that paint a smile on our kids' faces!" Ahmed said. "Now, Guevara can go to the toilet alone at night without being accompanied by me. She no longer feels scared."

 

 

 

One family’s story: Living in an underground cement cube

One family’s story: Living in an underground cement cube

By Salsabeel H. Hamdan, WeAreNotNumbers.org

One of the many consequences of the 12-year Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip is the prevention of the reconstruction needed following past wars on the strip. This has prohibited thousands of families in Gaza’s eight refugee camps from having their homes repaired—forcing them to live in dilapidated, unsafe structures.

Most of their houses were built in the 1950s-‘60s by UNRWA (the UN agency charged with helping Palestinian refugees) to replace the earlier tents first erected when they were forced to flee their ancestral land to make way for the creation of Israel. Over the years, the surrounding ground has accumulated dirt and sand, making it appear like the old houses—cement walls erected directly on the land, without a proper foundation—are sinking. The lack of foundations—as well as the absence of a sewage-disposal system—stems in part from the original belief that the houses were needed only temporarily, until the refugees returned home. Since then, the blockade has prevented the import of materials for improvements.

Photo by: Sanad Latifa

Photo by: Sanad Latifa

To truly understand the resulting living conditions, one must visit—as I did one day on a trip to see one particular family in the al-Shati (“beach”) Refugee Camp.

When entering the camp, the first impression is of hundreds of houses that all look the same: cement cubes, or cells, that appear glued together they are so close. In fact, it’s almost hard to tell which door is for which building. My other immediate observation was the windows. Due to the sinking effect, the original windows were too low to offer proper light or even a real view to the outside. Over time, they have been cemented in and tiny, additional openings have been added, although they are too high to reach. They provide a little light, but not enough to dispel the oppressive feeling.

I entered the home of Fares and Najwa al-Sayyid Jad, their four daughters and one son. (All of their children are under the age of 12!) It was 5 p.m., after sunset, and the camp had begun to be swallowed by darkness. But inside their house, I found four "Little Suns," portable solar lamps from the Rebuilding Alliance, lighting up each corner.

"Those Little Suns have helped us hugely. We used to light candles, but they are expensive and I knew too they were dangerous around my kids,” said Najwa, adding that Fares is ill with a nerve condition and cannot work. “Oh, Allah! We finally have sunlight inside our rooms!"

Photo by: Sanad Latifa

Photo by: Sanad Latifa

Inside, the house is like the outside, all cement. There is a room for the parents, one for all of the children, a kitchen and a newly added tiny bathroom.

"We never had a bathroom before, until the Youth Vision Society built this one for us months ago, so we don’t have to go to the bathroom in the kitchen," Najwa told us, noticing our reaction. Before the separate bathroom was built, the family had to settle for a sewage hole in the same room used for eating!

Eleven-year-old Abdullah took us around the house, pointing out the needed repairs and explaining how his father struggled to find help to improve the home. In the kitchen, he showed us a corner where they shower by having their mother pour buckets of water over them.

Fares spoke up then:

"See this, miss, this is the line from the rain water. Because of how low our house sits, water seeps inside our house each winter, along with sewage and all kinds of dirt. It reaches to about 80 centimeters (32 inches)." Each time that happens, the family must call the firemen, who bring a large truck to pump out the dingy water. However, their meager possessions often are ruined.

“In winter, I never sleep at night; I always stay up to watch for rain. If it gets heavy, I wake up the rest of the family and we immediately leave the house before the pressure of the water prevents the door from opening and we drown inside,” he said.

Deena, 12, added: “Many times, I wake up in winter to find I am sleeping in sewage water. I am always sick in winter; it is very cold and I lost my only blanket the last time the house drowned in water."

Because of this, many camp families lose most of their donations from UNRWA, their primary source of food, along with their few pieces of furniture, clothes, mattresses and blankets.

"We don't even eat every day, and now the United States is cutting UNRWA aid,” Fares said with frustration.

Four-year-old Nadeen piped up: "We eat meat only once a year, during Eid al-Adha (an Islamic holiday).”

Photo by: Sanad Latifa

Photo by: Sanad Latifa

Rats are another problem. "One day, I woke up feeling something biting my toes, so I moved my blanket to see, and it was a big rat!” Sama, 6, told me.

Abdullah jumped in, continuing the story: "I raised a cat to help us catch the rats and mice that enter through the ceiling.”

A year ago, Najwa added, it was even worse. But then a donor gave them some thin iron and zinc sheeting for the roof. More aid has come from NGOs that pay some of their bills and provide them with blankets and mattresses to replace those that are damaged by rain and sewage water. But this cycle of destruction and NGO aid will not end unless the camp’s houses can be made level with the surrounding ground.

"This is the only wish I have every winter: that someone will come and raise the ground under our house at least a meter,” said Najwa pointing to the home’s now-rotten walls.

Almost all of the families in al-Shati Refugee Camp, and the other camps in Gaza, face the same hardships, especially in winter. Half of the houses still have ceilings made of asbestos, which has been shown to cause disease when its dust is inhaled. Internationally, asbestos is now forbidden as a construction material. But it’s as if Gaza refugees have been forgotten—or judged not worthy of basic protection and rights.

 

When a home barely provides shelter

Up close: a profile of poverty

When a home barely provides shelter
By Israa Mohammed Jamal, We Are Not Numbers

Rebuilding Alliance is working with our partner organizations in Gaza to identify families most in need, then deliver essential supplies, assistance in seeking employment, etc. Below is an introduction to one of those families.

The home of Salim and Fatma (photos by Sanad Latifa)

The home of Salim and Fatma (photos by Sanad Latifa)

In a neighborhood called Oriba in the southern city of Rafah is a long, sandy road lined with houses made from sheets of corrugated iron crowding in on each side. A door threatens to fall off one. An old man and woman sit near the broken door, their heads held erect like sunflowers. Garbage is strewn on the ground around them and chickens, a goat, and two sheep go about their business. A small rickshaw sits next to a big sycamore tree, from whose branches clothing hang.

Behind the tree is a building that resembles a stable. It has a door but no windows, its corrugated iron walls riddled with holes. Inside its two rooms insects and spiders inhabit the walls and corners. The building contains very little furniture: A refrigerator and washing machine sit in the middle of one room, while a bed, mat and closet inhabit another. A baby sleeps on the floor of the main room, her hand covering her face as an insect buzzes around it. Some beans and flour fill a plastic bowl, waiting for someone to turn them into something edible. The weather is so hot it swelters, and the house has no fan; I can hardly take in a deep breath.

The bathroom is very dark and emits a fetid odor, as if the waste is accumulating. I can’t make myself enter, even to relieve myself. The woman apologizes, explaining they don’t have running water. Indeed, although a pipe juts over a basin in the sand-floored kitchen, only a thin trickle of brown water seeps from it. A tiny window above the pipe allows a few rays of light to waft in. I see no table, dishes or utensils. An empty canister of gas and a small oven sit to the side.

3E6A9488.jpg

Looking for work, dependent on aid

Living in the house is the family of Salim Almalalha, 41, a Palestinian refugee whose family originally came from Beersheba, in the Negev desert of what now is Israel. He was unable to attend more than middle school and is unemployed. His wife, Fatma, graduated from Al-Aqsa University with a degree in history. They have eight children, two daughters and six sons, ranging in age from 8 months to 13 years.

Fatma, who looks much older than her 35 years, suffers from chronic pain due to bone screws in her legs. Meanwhile, the tendons in her hands ache due to her repeated washing of her baby’s clothes. The family can’t afford diapers, so Fatma must scrub their infant’s clothes. They also can’t afford milk, so their baby drinks tea and juice, and this affects her health.


Salim searches for work every day, but he only earns around 36 shekels a week (around $10) because of the lack of jobs in Gaza. The family’s only regular source of food is cast-off produce from surrounding farms; sometimes, they must eat spoiled vegetables or fruit because they have nothing else. They rely on a charity for water. During Ramadan, another volunteer organization provided their iftar (breaking-the fast) meal, and their suhoor (eaten before the daily fast begins) was mostly watermelon. Because they do not own even the most basic of utensils, the family eats with their hands. Salim and Fatma could not buy their children the new clothes that are traditional for Eid al-Fitr (a major Muslim holiday), nor do they have money for school uniforms, so the children wear the clothes in which they sleep to school. The clothes they do have are dirty, because they don’t have enough to change them out frequently and the kids are normal kids; they like to play in whatever way they can.

Surviving anyway

Despite the obstacles, the children perform decently in school—including Adel, the oldest son, who suffers from aphasia, a disorder that makes it difficult for him to speak. A doctor at his primary school was able to help, but Salim and Fatma had to halt the treatment due to the high cost. When I ask Adel about his hobbies and dreams, I cannot understand his response. But he then draws a beautiful plane on a piece of paper, full of detail, and writes next to it, “I want to travel.” Fatma says Adel is very intelligent and can fix simple electronics. For example, the family has a small light with a charger. When the charger stopped working, Adel fixed it.

When I ask one of the daughters, Jana, what kinds of toys she likes, she tells me she doesn’t have any. The only plaything they have is a swing made by Salim. When I then inquire about her favorite cartoons, Jana replies, “I don’t watch television because our TV doesn’t work.” Because there are no lamps in the house, the children wake at sunrise and go to sleep just after sunset. They sleep on a mat and their pillows are plastic bags stuffed with old clothes.

Salim would like to be able to earn his own money, perhaps by selling fruits and vegetables or operating a delivery service. “I wish I had work to earn money and feed my children,” he says. “I hope someone can help me save my children from this miserable life.”

3E6A9511.jpg

Fatma echoes her husband. “We need better clothes and shoes for the children, especially in the winter, and a home with running water, electricity, healthy food and milk, diapers, medicine, toys, furniture, and a kitchen with dishes and utensils,” she tells me. “And I need help to find work for my husband so he can earn money, because we can’t bear to live like this anymore.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Ramadan and Eid Mean to Gaza

What Ramadan and Eid Mean to Gaza

By Raed Shakshak, We Are Not Numbers

“We love you, Ramadan! We fast [during] you, Ramadan!” chant little kids every year a few days before the holy month kicks off. The chant marks the official start of Ramadan, eagerly anticipated by everyone no matter how harsh life is at the time. Most non-Muslims know the Islamic holiday of Ramadan as a month of fasting. And how fun can that be? But Ramadan and the Eid (breaking the fast) festivities that follow are so much more than that.

Ramadan in Gaza

Ramadan in Gaza

During Ramadan, people socialize more than at any other time of year. (In fact, during Eid, we literally visit every relative we have. It’s often exhausting!) For kids, it's a month when they buy fireworks and have a little party of their own almost every evening after iftar (the daily meal when Muslims break their fast, around sunset).

For women, Ramadan is the month when they gather to make traditional desserts, like qatayef, a fried pancake filled with cheese, nuts and sugar; kaak, a donut-shaped cookie; and maamoul, a filled pastry. Those snacks are hard to make alone, but when women make them together, they have fun. They talk, laugh and stay up all night so they can make large quantities at one time. It’s almost a sport to them, like soccer. They play as a team!. These sweets are the taste of Ramadan.

On the other hand, Ramadan can be a bit stressful for men, who are primarily responsible for supporting their families financially. During Eid, fathers and husbands are expected to treat children and women with Eidiyah, or pocket money. Still, men enjoy Ramadan too. They sit outdoors together before the last prayer of the day, talk, and drink tea and coffee. and the host offers Ramadan’s desserts to his guests. Their laughter rings throughout the streets.

Then there are the sounds--like takbeer (a magical, mesmerizing chant, saying Allahu akbar, or God is the greatest) performed before the first prayer of the day during Eid, and taraweeh (night prayers said during Ramadan). Just before dawn, the Ramadan dummer (called the musaharati) wanders the streets, waking everyone up tso they can eat before they fast again.

And let’s not forget the sights: Bright-hued flags and crescents are strung with tiny lights on the walls and people carry glowing lanterns. Vendor stalls are stocked with small toys given to children along with money during Eid.  

During the last few days of Ramadan, the markets are crowded as people buy new clothes in which to celebrate Eid al-Fitr (“little” Eid; the “greater” Eid is in the fall). Downtown’ roads often are declared off limits to cars so there is more room to buy and sell goods. Meanwhile, men and women get fresh haircuts or styles. Everyone has a new look. It’s a symbol of a new start in life.

Some families are so poor they simply cannot celebrate Ramadan as it should be. They cannot make snacks/desserts or buy new clothes. It is like a Christmas without trees and gifts. Sometimes people are so broke hey don’t even visit their relatives; they are too embarrassed.

A little girl receives a gift of clothes from Rebuilding Alliance (Photo by Sanad Latefa)

A little girl receives a gift of clothes from Rebuilding Alliance (Photo by Sanad Latefa)

Fortunately, Ramadan is God’s month, and God sends good people to help the poor. Those who have money help those who don’t in various ways. They invite them to iftar meals, donate money or gift them with new clothes. In addition, there are NGOs that work hard to feed and clothe the poor, although their coffers are scant as well. Among the helpers is the American NGO Rebuilding Alliance and its Gaza partners, El-Amal Rehabilitation Society and the Women’s Programs Center.

“We managed to benefit more than 200 families in Rafah City, where some of the neediest residents live,” says Kareem Nasrallah, Rafah coordinator for Rebuilding Alliance. “The children were so happy they finally got new clothes for Eid after completely losing hope.”

Another Rebuilding Alliance Partner, Youth Vision Society, distributed 20 food baskets to the poorest families in Shati Camp and helped 60 families buy Eid clothes for their 134 kids.

Photo by: Sanad Latefa

Photo by: Sanad Latefa

"It warmed my heart to see families receive food and kids choose their own Eid clothes and shoes,” says Neveen Nasser, Gaza City coordinator for Rebuilding Alliance. “I'll never forget the children’s heart-touching smiles as they got ready for Eid with nice outfits."

Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr are a break from life. They are missed as soon as they are over.  Actually, people start missing Ramadan on its first day. How ironic is that! They say, “Gotar\Goter Ramadan (Gotar\Goter means leave\left). One day is gone, two tens and nine (29 days) are left.”

Words can’t adequately describe how much Muslims love this month. And because of its blessings, Muslims pray they make it to next year’s Ramadan. May God bless Muslims everywhere and forgive their sins by the end of Ramadan. Amen.








Palestinian children in the U.S. Congress

Palestinian children in the U.S. Congress

By Haneen Abed Elnaby, We Are Not Numbers

From practicing her speech in front of the mirror to representing Palestinian children in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Congress: That’s a long journey in many ways, especially for a teenager from the Gaza Strip. But this is one of the few “dream-come-true” stories that prove even the seemingly impossible can happen.

Lama Ramzy Abed, 14, attends UNRWA’s al-Mamounia School in Gaza City. An ambitious girl, she responded immediately when she heard there was a competition sponsored by American NGO Rebuilding Alliance to educate American politicians on conditions in Gaza. All of the UNRWA middle schools participated and Lama was chosen to represent hers after interviewing with two of her teachers.

Lama and her mother, Amal

Lama and her mother, Amal

They asked Lama in the interview, "What is peace?” That is a big question and Lama had never really what about what living in peace would mean. But she rose to the challenge and answered, "Peace is holding each other’s hands so we can change things for the better and spread love."

Fluent in English, Lama learned how to speak English so well by reading books, watching movies and listening to music. She also writes in both Arabic and English dreams of becoming a journalist. After Lama heard about this competition, her dream expanded to include telling the U.S. Congress that, “Palestinians love peace.”

She expressed," I am afraid that my dream will be in vain since I am not sure if I will travel because there are many difficulties regarding Erez Crossing." She added, "I am afraid of my own future since Gaza has an unknown future."

Lama said, "I wish this opportunity will be an exceptional point or stage in my whole life, and it can provide me with the courage to achieve many dreams in my life." She thinks this chance will help her to develop her English language skills, and she can succeed if she insists to do it. She also believes that the American Congress will believe her, because they are humans and their job is to spread peace all over the world. Her main goal is to tell the whole world that Palestinians are different from what is common in the media. She wants to tell the Congress, "Palestinians are not terrorists, but are human beings."

The other kid, Ayser An-Nawajja, 16, from Wanni School in Susiya village. He wishes to study political science in the future. He went to speak to the U.S. Congress three times before, and his message to the Congress is to show them how the people and the children in the Susiya village suffer from the repeated attacks by the Israeli settlers.

Ayser explained in a previous speech with the Congress, "We really suffer in our everyday life." Ayser's experience with the congress was good since there are many people in the Congress who react and support Palestinians.

The third kid is Ahmed An-Nawajja, 12, from Susiya School in Susiya village. Ahmed's message is telling the U.S. Congress about his school which will be destroyed by the Israelis. Susiya village is about to be destroyed by Israel, so Ahmed wants to make the congress see the real hardship that they are dealing with. His message is to make the Congress help them by calling off the decision of destroying the whole village.

Ahmed and Ayser, in the cockpit before taking off for the United States

Ahmed and Ayser, in the cockpit before taking off for the United States

Regarding parents, the biggest fear for Lama's mom, Amal is that this is the first time she will be away from her husband, and she will be with her young kid in a big country for the first time. She is always encouraging her kid to be open to other cultures, but she has to be proud of her own identity and culture. As a mom who represents all other parents whose their noble message is showing that Palestinian children suffer in the UNRWA schools due to US government's elimination of all American aid for UNRWA.

She added, "I also believe if one reaches to a high position by working in the Congress, of course, he will believe in humanity since this is his job."

"Actually, Gaza is so small, but if you look inside it, you will know that Gazans are simple people and they love peace, so you will extremely protect it and solve all its problems," Amal expressed.

Amal also said that she will always supports her girl even if she wants to travel outside the country in the future to continue her studies. Actually, Lama was so excited since this is the first time that she will be out of Gaza, and she told her mom that she wanted to take a selfie with the wheeled luggage, but it is not allowed to use for passengers through Erez Crossing, so they have to use a handbag instead.

Due to the difficulties that they were facing during the past six months, Lama told me, “if they told us to use a plastic bag, I will use it as I want to travel to achieve my goal, I don’t mind relinquishing of the basic rights for the sake of my dream.

On the other hand, Heyam, Ahmed's mother, wish to deliver a speech on behalf of all other parents in Susiya village in the U.S. Congress. Her message is to tell the people all over the world that she wants to see her son as a doctor in the future, but she is afraid that the school will be destroyed. She insists that even if they destroy the school, they will teach their children. They only ask for a basic right which is learning.

The group at the airport

The group at the airport

Regarding Gaza and West Bank trips. The saddest part through the whole six months according to Lama and her mom is when they applied for the non- objection paper for crossing Jordan three times. Jordan accepted it the first time, but Israel rejected the Israeli permit. The second time, Jordan rejected the non- objection paper, and Israel approved the Israeli permit. The third time is not known until now. Another difficulty was when they went to Jerusalem for the US visa interview in the US Consulate General in Jerusalem. They had to go there get back by the bus. They were not allowed to even to take a breath of fresh air from their own country. “Actually, there was a woman who was a little bit tired, but the bus driver was instructed not to stop for any reason. I just wish we had visited the old city and pray at the Dome of the Rock,” Amal added. Unlike the people in the west bank since they don't need an Israeli permit or non-objection paper, travel and visa procedures were easier for the Susiya team. The whole team is very thankful for Rebuilding Alliance for giving them this ideal chance to represent the Palestinian people. Lama's mother is surprised that there are people like Donna who care for Palestinians. "Donna made me believe that there is still humanity in this world, and I hope that I will find people in the U.S. Congress who have some humanity like Donna, and that they will hear us," Lama's mom said.

Palestinian Youth Need Your Support

Palestinian Youth Need Your Support

Palestinian youth will share their visions of peace before Congress on February 5th, 2019 in Rebuilding Alliance’s fourth #ICareAboutPeace congressional briefing. Help maximize the impact that our brave young speakers will make by making a donation to support our ongoing advocacy efforts. Following the visit to Congress, the children and their parents will remain in the US for two more weeks to do a multi-state speaking tour along the Eastern seaboard. I am looking for caring individuals like you to donate to Rebuilding Alliance so that we can continue to spread this important message. Contributions to Rebuilding Alliance are tax-deductible and every little bit helps.

Gaza union speaks up for UN employees, sends message to the world

Gaza union speaks up for UN employees, sends message to the world

“This is the biggest challenge we have faced since the creation of UNRWA [in 1949],” says Amir el-Mishal, LSU chair. “First, the agency lost about US$446 million, causing it to stop hiring, terminate many contracts and change others from full to partial. That not only negatively impacted agency employees in Gaza, it also led to a decline in the quantity and quality of services we offer refugees."

Launching a message of Light to you from Palestinians who live in Gaza

Launching a message of Light to you from Palestinians who live in Gaza

You can change life in Gaza — that's what Artist Maysa Yousef and her husband came up with when we asked Gaza artists to design a logo for the #GazaLightMessage campaign.  

I am honored to announce that the Local Staff Union - Gaza is co-sponsoring this campaign each Wednesday night and, via Facebook and email, is inviting its 13,000 members to participate from their homes, then post photos and messages using hashtags, غزة_رسالة_ضوء#   #GazaLightMessage. The members of the LSU are employees of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and with their commitment, professionalism, and expertise, they are a key to Gaza's future.

Gaza's social media activists have joined too, another key to Gaza's future. (see the article below).
Over the next seven weeks, I invite you to click "Going" to our Facebook event, and respond to the weekly hashtag messages posted by the people of Gaza (to do this, go to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and paste #GazaLightMessage or or غزة_رسالة_ضوء# to see them and post a comment). After January 3rd when the new Congress is sworn-in, we'll send you an Action alert to help you press Congress to restore the U.S. aid cancelled by President Trump, recognize Palestinian planning rights, keep the U.S. Consulate open in Jerusalem, and lift the blockade on Gaza.

Little Suns make smiles in Gaza

I perked up when I was told by We Are Not Numbers that its partner NGO, the Rebuilding Alliance, was going to distribute Little Sun solar lights to people in particular need of light at this dark time of year in Gaza. It has been a long time since I had participated in community service, so—despite the early starting time, which goes against my nature—I jumped at the chance to participate. When I see people in need receive help and witness happiness bursting from the depth of their hearts into their eyes, I forget all of the tragedy and suffering that dominates life in Gaza.

However, although I have participated in many charitable activities during my years, this one was really special. I found myself wishing that everyone—both inside Gaza and out, where they often don’t understand us—could have accompanied me during this experience and felt what I felt. So, let me try to share a little of it with you.

The warmest and kindest salute

First, we visited the Al-Amal Society for Rehabilitation, which serves hundreds of deaf and mute students in Rafah, in the far south of the Gaza Strip. The pride they felt upon receiving the gift of the Little Suns was evident as we began distributing the solar lamps. One little girl kept staring at her Little Sun, without a single blink, as if she had been given the most valuable prize in the world.

I feel like I’ve lost my life,’ say victims of UNRWA funding cuts

I feel like I’ve lost my life,’ say victims of UNRWA funding cuts

“I haven’t just lost a job. I feel like I’ve lost my life,” says 39-year-old Raeda Younis, who has worked for UNRWA, the U.N. agency charged with aiding Palestinian refugees, for 16 years.

Osama Naseer, 48, agrees.

“It is our right to live in dignity like anyone else,” fumes the 17-year employee. “It is time to tear down the wall of silence and tell Donald Trump we will not surrender to his racist policies even if we die of hunger.”  

Raeda and Osama are among nearly1,000 U.N. employees whose contracts were terminated or who will be transferred to part-time work by the end of the year. The cuts came after the U.S. government, UNRWA’s largest funder, eliminated its contribution of $125 million. And now, the agency says its schools and health centers might soon have to shut down.

In a territory with an unemployment rate of more than 50 percent, UNRWA jobs had been among the most stable and sufficiently paid. Many Gazans had been working for the agency for more than 20 years. Raeda first served for three years in on an emergency team that helped out during crises, like during wars. Then she transferred to a school and became a counselor. She never dreamed she’d lose her job so suddenly.

UN Funding Cuts Jeopardize Partner NGO Helping Deaf Children

UN Funding Cuts Jeopardize Partner NGO Helping Deaf Children

Zeyad Aabed has devoted his career—26 years—to running an NGO dedicated to offering education and health services to the deaf. It was, to say the least, a labor of love. But now, much of the funding on which his NGO depends is drying up. And today, he feels exhausted and depressed, fearful he will have to close the El-Amal Rehabilitation Society altogether.

The steep cuts in funding for the U.N. agency charged with aiding at least 5 million Palestinian refugees are sending myriad ripple effects across the Gaza Strip. In the news are the UNRWA employees whose jobs have been eliminated, cut back to part-time or converted to “temporary.” But what isn’t widely known is that funding from UNRWA and other international aid organizations accounts for 70 percent of the income for local NGOs in Gaza—which in turn generates a third of the jobs.

El-Amal—which means "hope" in Arabic—was established in 1992 as a school for the deaf in Rafah, in the far south of the Gaza Strip. Over the years, it has expanded to offer a variety of other programs, including a kindergarten, vocational training and adult literacy-building activities. All are free of charge, since many who are hearing impaired struggle to earn an income.

“The goal is to offer a continuum of services throughout our clients’ lifecycles,” explains CEO Aabed. For example, a 5-year-old child can join the association's kindergarten, then progress into its Darwish Abu Skarekh School, the only school for the deaf in southern Gaza. When students finish the ninth grade, they either may move to Gaza City's secondary school for the deaf, which is privately run and thus too expensive for many people, or join El-Amal's vocational training center.