Ali Abusheikh, We Are Not Numbers
Attah Qasem is a 29-year-old Palestinian who lives with his wife and 2-year-old son in a small room in his father’s house in the al-Shati Refugee Camp west of Gaza City. A second child is on the way, which is both happy news and a source of anxiety.
Attah has been unemployed for about 10 years. He used to work as a cleaner for a clothing factory in Gaza, but the business closed in 2008 due to the Israeli sea, air and land blockade, which starves the local economy. Unemployment in Gaza is the highest in the world—44 percent overall and 58 percent among young adults (ages 15-29). In addition, Attah suffered a perforated eardrum and has lost hearing in that ear.
“I feel desperate most of the time; I can’t even afford a can of milk or the medicine my pregnant wife needs. She doesn’t eat a proper variety of foods, so the baby isn’t in good health. But I can’t ask my father for money,” Attah said, explaining that his father is retired and barely has enough to cover his own expenses. “I need a job that pays a sustainable salary.”
So, Attah and his family survives on handouts from relatives; he even sells some of the food aid he receives from the United Nations. He has even given his ID to the grocer until he pays for several past purchases. And the grocer isn’t the only one to whom Attah owes money. His debts now total $1,000, and the police are after him for not repaying them. When his brother-in-law offered to help Attah work as a vender, selling corn on the cob or ice cream on the street near his home, he had to say no.
“I could get arrested at any time when I’m out,” Attah explained. “Each time the police come to our house, I escape out the back door. I once contemplated committing suicide by throwing myself from the roof when the police arrived.”
Like many other poor families in Gaza, light is one of the first casualties of his family’s poverty. Electricity is only available an average of three hours a day lately due to the shortage of fuel, and Attah cannot afford a back-up generator or even a battery-operated light. His uncle once gave him a small phone with a light as a gift, but he had to sell it for cash.
"I have to sell all the gifts I receive from people,” said Attah. “I sell them to buy food for my son and wife. I also sold the old only fan we had. And it breaks my heart each time my son asks for a snack. I can’t get him a snack! What am I living for?"
However, he hopes to keep the gift he prizes the most: a small solar light. His father’s family also received two. The device soaks up sun’s rays, then can be used to generate light when the electricity is off—which is true for an average of 17 hours a day lately due to a severe shortage of fuel.
Attah had no idea where the lights came from when they were delivered and asked to whom he owed thanks. When he learned they were distributed by the local Youth Vision Society and donated by American NGO Rebuilding Alliance, he said, “They are lifesavers!”
Attah takes care of the solar lights. He makes sure to put them in the sun in the morning, then turns them on at night. However, the entire family takes turns using the devices. They light up every family gathering and dinner, and Attah’s brother takes a light with him when he goes out at night to buy falafel or foul (beans). In addition, Attah’s father takes one with him to light the way when he goes to the mosque to pray at dawn. However, little Ahmed especially loves them.
“The base has a red light that turns on and off, creating a sort of peaceful atmosphere,” Attah said. “It helps my son sleeps peacefully. It will definitely be his Ramadan lantern as well." Ramadan is one of the holiest Muslim holidays.
The concept of generating light from the sun is exciting to the family, who see it as grace from God.