Ali Abusheikh, We Are Not Numbers
When you live mired in poverty, every detail of daily life is a challenge.
Abeer and Salah al-Akharsah, along with their seven children (and an eighth on the way), live in a remote area of the Gaza Strip—Eraiba, northwest of Rafah. Salah, 41, used to earn a decent income as a trader of goods transported through the tunnels connecting Gaza with Egypt. However, Egypt, at the command of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has destroyed most of the tunnels to stop the smuggling of weapons, and today Salah works as a farmer on other people’s land to earn what money he can. It’s not enough.
Until recently, the entire family lived in a tent; heavy rains brought it down on the children while they slept. Fortunately, a wealthier resident from Khan Younis took pity on them and paid for the construction of a small, zinc-roofed, cement house with two bedrooms (for the couple and nine children, including two by Salah’s first wife), a kitchen, a bathroom, a small washing area and living room. They lack furniture—all they have are a few blankets and mattresses, a worn carpet and a nonfunctioning TV—but they are grateful for the little dry warmth it offers.
Routines that most take for granted are difficult as well. For example, the only transportation they can afford is their own feet. They walk to and from school or the hospital.
“I can only visit my family once every other month, because they live in Khan Younis (about a 30-minute drive),” says Abeer, 27. “Thank God we have feet; otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to go anywhere. Our transportation is walking and our feet are our vehicles.”
Another challenge is electricity. The local power plant lacks the infrastructure to operate at full capacity and fuel imports from Egypt and Israel are limited and expensive. The result: Electricity is currently available only about two to three hours a day in her neighborhood. And sometimes it comes in the middle of the night. Without an alternative source of light, the children cannot do their homework and Abeer cannot read (a rare source of solace) or do all of her chores. She even struggles to bake bread for her children.
Although candles are an alternative, they can be dangerous, particularly in the presence of small children. Another is the use of LED lights or battery-operated flashlights. However, they cost precious money. Abeer does not even have a cellphone to use for light when it gets dark. Fortunately, the al-Akharsah family has two “guardian angels”—the American NGO Rebuilding Alliance and its partner in Gaza, the Women’s Program Center in Rafah. Rebuilding Alliance donated solar lights (Nur al-Amal, or Light of Hope) and the Women’s Program Center distributed three to Abeer and her family. The distribution program is called It’s Time for Light.
“The solar lights made our life better and easier at night. I no longer need to worry about taking my kids to the bathroom in the dark anymore; plus, I can teach them in the evenings now. I am also glad I could stop using candles. I was obsessed with the fear they would burn my kids or the house accidentally,” Abeer explains.
Abeer’s fear was not irrational. Candle fires are common in Gaza and can cause great harm. In May 2015, three small children died in a house fire caused by candles lit during a power outage. And in January 2017, a 12-year-old girl and her 8-year-old sister sustained moderate burns, while their father suffered from minor burns, from a candle fire.
Abeer knows the pain of burns. One of her daughters was seriously burned when she sat in a hot pan a few years ago.
“That was the most tragic incident I’ve ever experienced,” she recalls. “One day, I was making dinner for my family and I had to leave the kitchen for some reason. When I returned, I found my daughter Malak sitting in the pan where I was frying eggplant in oil. She was screaming along with her infant sister, Ahlam. Malak was just three years old back then. That heartbreaking picture is still etched in my memory.”
Since the family didn’t have enough money to treat both girls, Abeer was forced to give preference to Ahlam, who was burned in the face from spattered oil. Malak, who was burned on other, less-visible parts of her body, spent one year in the hospital, but can’t get the treatment she really needs unless she can leave Gaza for plastic surgery abroad.
“My only wish in this life is getting travel permit for Malak. I would do anything to see her recovered from her burns,” says Abeer.
Every time she bathes Malak, the little girl says, “Why do I have these burns? Will they stay there forever? Can’t you help me get rid of them, mummy? I can’t stand seeing and feeling them.”
Abeer “thanks Allah” every day for the solar lights that have replaced her family’s use of candles.
“I’m like any mother anywhere; I never want to risk my children’s lives,” says Abeer.