Mohammed Arafat, We Are Not Numbers
I was not prepared for what I found when I visited the al-Malalha family in Rafah, in the far south of the Gaza Strip.
Their street was lightless, but the dim glow of the moon helped me see so I could walk without tripping. It was lined with farmland and greenhouses. Nothing could be heard but the sound of crickets.
Then my companion pointed at the house we were going to visit. I saw nothing other than a barn seemingly constructed from tin plates that looked like it was for goats and chickens. I was shocked when he told me it was a family’s home.
The yard was tiny and crowded. It’s where the family—a husband and wife and their four children—hang laundry, play and scoop water from a large barrel for drinking and washing. A dung-like smell emanated from the house and was hard to stomach. But I hid my reaction so I would not offend the residents, al-Abed, 34, and Mona, 32, who came out to greet us. I shook al-Abed’s hands and waved at Mona.
Al-Abed’s face showed his weariness, with deep, vertical lines carved into his cheeks. Like most of the men in Gaza, which has the highest unemployment rate in the world, El-Abed is jobless. Mona, a housewife, has anxious, brown eyes that tell a story by themselves.
“As you see, this place is unlivable,” Mona apologized. “I have four kids, including my 9-year old daughter who suffers from poor vision.”
Her husband interrupted, saying, “We’re sorry; we didn’t bring you chairs to rest on! Our home is small and we don’t have a guest room.”
The Malalha family’s home has only one bedroom for all six members, as well as a small kitchen. But there is not much they can cook due to the lack of income; they can only afford to feed their children meat—an important source of protein—twice a month.
To try to improve their situation, Mona has started a small business selling biscuits and chocolates for kids. Her little booth is made of tin plates and helps them buy bread and rice, which are what they primarily eat for their daily meals.
Al-Abed hurriedly brought us chairs and we sat to chat about the two solar lights (Nur al-Amal, or Light of Hope) they recently received from the Women’s Program Center in Rafah, thanks to a donation from the American NGO Rebuilding Alliance. The two organizations collaborate on the It’s Time for Light campaign to relieve the hardships caused by the severe shortage of electricity in Gaza.
“When Maram was born, we didn’t know she had nyctalopia (lack of night vision),” recalled al-Abed. “But when she began crawling, we realized that she suffers from blindness during the night. She can’t see at all unless there is some light. But as you know, we only get a few hours of electricity per day and that makes it so hard for Maram to play or do her homework and other chores.”
Due to the shortage of fuel and lack of power-plant equipment imposed by the Israeli blockade, the Malhalla family gets only three hours of electricity per day. The solar lights are “a gift from Allah,” Mona said.
Asked if she tried to take her daughter to medical centers for help, Mona said her husband had taken the girl to various vision specialists in Gaza, “but no one knew how to diagnose her condition, so we were advised to take her to Jordan for treatment.”
However, the crossing into Egypt is closed most of the time and it is very difficult to obtain a permit to leave through Israel. In 2017, 54 Gaza patients died while awaiting Israeli permits. International organizations report that the number of medical permits given by Israeli authorities last year decreased to the lowest number since 2008.
Nights are Maram’s enemies, since she can’t see well enough to study or to go to bathroom at night,” sighed Mona. “But the solar lights helped her function the same as other kids.”
Al-Abed added, “The light has become her daily companion. She sleeps while it’s beside her. She wakes up holding it. She doesn’t feel that blind anymore!”
I asked Maram, who looked normal and happy, about how the light helped her, and she said she isn’t scared anymore when she wakes up in the pitch dark.
“If I wake up finding no light beside me, I cry and scream!” said the blond-haired girl. “During the night, my mom always stayed with me when I had no light. But after getting this gift, I began to depend on myself.”
Before ending the interview, Maram and her parents had a message they wanted to send to the donors who made the Nur al-Amal possible:
“They lightened our life!” Mona smiled. “These lights helped the whole family, not only my daughter. We know these solar lights didn’t solve all of our problems, but we now can have light, while thousands don’t.”