By Mahmoud Alnaouq, We Are Not Numbers
photos by Mohammad Mansour, Rebuilding Alliance
I thought I knew what poverty is like; after all, 80 percent of our 2 million population meet the definition of living under the poverty line. But when I visited Oriba, a village at the far southern tip of the strip, I discovered I was wrong. And although I couldn’t imagine living in the conditions I saw there, my hostess—Emarat Qandil—smiled throughout my visit as if she had nothing to be worried about or depressed about. "I’ve gotten used to hardship,” she shrugged. “If I gave up on life, what would my children do? They need me.”
I visited Oriba, one of Gaza’s most marginalized communities, with a team from Rebuilding Alliance, which has been helping the residents by giving them portable solar lights to relieve the lack of electricity for several years. Since it was the holy Islamic month of Ramadan, we brought with us an iftar meal. (During Ramadan, we fast all day, then eat in a late-night meal we call iftar.) We served beef kabobs, yogurt, bread and salad, and entertained the children with fanous (festive Ramadan lanterns) and sparklers and firecrackers for the children.
Emarat; her husband, Yahiya, her mother-in-law, and her three children, two boys and a girl, live in a building that can barely pass for a house. The floor is raw sand and the walls and roof are a hodge podge of wood, cement blocks and sheets of corrugated iron. But that has always been Emarat’s life. She grew up in a similar home, although her father found enough paid work to support the family. Emarat married Yahiya in 2010 at the age of 17. She had wanted to attend university, but Yahiya couldn’t afford it. Their situation became even worse after he broke both legs in an accident at one of his odd jobs. That injury, plus the extreme fatigue he feels due to his diabetes, makes it impossible for him to work now. Now, Emarat tries to earn a bit of money by scavenging farmland for discarded vegetables and selling them.
Their youngest child, Yamen, who is 4 years old, is bow-legged and has to wear leg braces, which cost around $150. "We had to save for two months to be able to afford them,” Emarat says. Her other children are 8 and 6 years old. Like every other house in the village, their home lacks the most basic of necessities, including electricity, running water and a sewage system. Fortunately, the owner of some nearby farmland built a well for his fields and agreed to provide the family water and electricity a few hours a day, when his generator is on. Those few hours are barely enough to charge batteries and water bottles, but it’s something.
Their house has no kitchen; instead, they use a very small room to make fire in a portable stove and store some cooking equipment. They also don't have running water in the bathroom; the toilet simply has a barrel buried beneath it that must be emptied.
It was growing dark as we sat down for iftar. The power was off so they lit a few candles. Afterward, the children played with the lanterns and sparklers we had brought. Meanwhile, Emarat and her sister, Amira, continued to tell me their story. Amira is a strong, educated woman who was so saddened at the conditions of her family’s village begged different NGOs to supply aid. And to some extent, she has succeeded. However, one of Emarat’s wishes is to find a decent job so she can stop depending on aid. Her second wish is to buy her children new clothes for Eid, Muslim holy day that follows Ramadan.
Is there any silver lining to this tough existence? "We have very strong family relations, Amira said. “Everyone stands with each other in the hard times."
The people of Oriba have very little of material value to give, but love, support and compassion are priceless.