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.
El-Amal’s larger goal is to integrate the hearing-impaired into broader society; thus, many of its programs are open to other residents of Rafah. In fact, the association offers four free courses a year in sign language, so others in the area can communicate with and get to know its students. Last year, it was named by the Stars Foundation as one of the eight best examples globally of associations that work to transform the lives of disadvantaged children and their communities.
Impact of aid cuts
El-Amal depends on a number of donors to operate, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Catholic Relief Services, a variety of European embassies and banks. But the largest share of its funding has come from UNRWA.
“UNRWA even provides us with the petrol we need to run our school, clinic, labs and other facilities,” Aabed says. “Otherwise, we’d have only four hours of electricity a day, and that’s not enough. UNRWA also has provided water and food, so we can offer students a good daily meal in our school kitchen.”
In 2017, the association led 12 projects in collaboration with other organizations. But, Aabed says, "2018 is the worst year for El-Amal since it was established," with only four projects able to operate. Among the programs cut are one that creates jobs, a summer camp and an early-intervention hearing-testing service. For instance, Gaza 20/20 was funded by USAID in 2016 to create job opportunities over five years. But only 40 percent of the funds were spent before it was suspended in June. At least 2,400 families are paying the price.
The ultimate victims
Almost all of El-Amal’s clients are poor and unemployed, and thus heavily reliant on the association. At least 170 of its deaf students now are at risk of losing education and health services. For example, UNRWA had covered 40 percent of the cost for the hearing aids required by more than 170 students, which cost US$550 every three years. Now, those children won’t receive them. Likewise, the NGO spends at least US$140 a day on transportation to bring its students to school. "This year, we felt forced to ask the families to help by contributing, but most don’t have the money,” says Aabed. "Our services have been free for 26 years, so it’s difficult to suddenly ask people to pay fees.”
The children spend almost all of their days inside El-Amal's school, where they can communicate easily and live comfortably. Any cuts in the association's operating budget, about $15,000 a year, will adversely affect the psychological balance the staff has so carefully cultivated.
Another consequence of the UNRWA funding cuts is a severe reduction in many staff salaries. Thirty-one of the association's 85 employees are paid by UNRWA, and they now receive only 60 percent of their salaries. Fifteen of those employees are hearing-impaired themselves and attended El-Amal as students.
Along with a large number of other local NGOs in the Middle East, El-Amal is left with two options: close its doors or ask its employees to work for reduced or no pay until other countries fill the gap left by the United States. El-Amal’s mission is to nurture hope among deaf children and their families, so for now, the NGO and its staff have opted for the latter. For how long they can do that is uncertain.