When a home barely provides shelter

Up close: a profile of poverty

When a home barely provides shelter
By Israa Mohammed Jamal, We Are Not Numbers

Rebuilding Alliance is working with our partner organizations in Gaza to identify families most in need, then deliver essential supplies, assistance in seeking employment, etc. Below is an introduction to one of those families.

The home of Salim and Fatma (photos by Sanad Latifa)

The home of Salim and Fatma (photos by Sanad Latifa)

In a neighborhood called Oriba in the southern city of Rafah is a long, sandy road lined with houses made from sheets of corrugated iron crowding in on each side. A door threatens to fall off one. An old man and woman sit near the broken door, their heads held erect like sunflowers. Garbage is strewn on the ground around them and chickens, a goat, and two sheep go about their business. A small rickshaw sits next to a big sycamore tree, from whose branches clothing hang.

Behind the tree is a building that resembles a stable. It has a door but no windows, its corrugated iron walls riddled with holes. Inside its two rooms insects and spiders inhabit the walls and corners. The building contains very little furniture: A refrigerator and washing machine sit in the middle of one room, while a bed, mat and closet inhabit another. A baby sleeps on the floor of the main room, her hand covering her face as an insect buzzes around it. Some beans and flour fill a plastic bowl, waiting for someone to turn them into something edible. The weather is so hot it swelters, and the house has no fan; I can hardly take in a deep breath.

The bathroom is very dark and emits a fetid odor, as if the waste is accumulating. I can’t make myself enter, even to relieve myself. The woman apologizes, explaining they don’t have running water. Indeed, although a pipe juts over a basin in the sand-floored kitchen, only a thin trickle of brown water seeps from it. A tiny window above the pipe allows a few rays of light to waft in. I see no table, dishes or utensils. An empty canister of gas and a small oven sit to the side.

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Looking for work, dependent on aid

Living in the house is the family of Salim Almalalha, 41, a Palestinian refugee whose family originally came from Beersheba, in the Negev desert of what now is Israel. He was unable to attend more than middle school and is unemployed. His wife, Fatma, graduated from Al-Aqsa University with a degree in history. They have eight children, two daughters and six sons, ranging in age from 8 months to 13 years.

Fatma, who looks much older than her 35 years, suffers from chronic pain due to bone screws in her legs. Meanwhile, the tendons in her hands ache due to her repeated washing of her baby’s clothes. The family can’t afford diapers, so Fatma must scrub their infant’s clothes. They also can’t afford milk, so their baby drinks tea and juice, and this affects her health.


Salim searches for work every day, but he only earns around 36 shekels a week (around $10) because of the lack of jobs in Gaza. The family’s only regular source of food is cast-off produce from surrounding farms; sometimes, they must eat spoiled vegetables or fruit because they have nothing else. They rely on a charity for water. During Ramadan, another volunteer organization provided their iftar (breaking-the fast) meal, and their suhoor (eaten before the daily fast begins) was mostly watermelon. Because they do not own even the most basic of utensils, the family eats with their hands. Salim and Fatma could not buy their children the new clothes that are traditional for Eid al-Fitr (a major Muslim holiday), nor do they have money for school uniforms, so the children wear the clothes in which they sleep to school. The clothes they do have are dirty, because they don’t have enough to change them out frequently and the kids are normal kids; they like to play in whatever way they can.

Surviving anyway

Despite the obstacles, the children perform decently in school—including Adel, the oldest son, who suffers from aphasia, a disorder that makes it difficult for him to speak. A doctor at his primary school was able to help, but Salim and Fatma had to halt the treatment due to the high cost. When I ask Adel about his hobbies and dreams, I cannot understand his response. But he then draws a beautiful plane on a piece of paper, full of detail, and writes next to it, “I want to travel.” Fatma says Adel is very intelligent and can fix simple electronics. For example, the family has a small light with a charger. When the charger stopped working, Adel fixed it.

When I ask one of the daughters, Jana, what kinds of toys she likes, she tells me she doesn’t have any. The only plaything they have is a swing made by Salim. When I then inquire about her favorite cartoons, Jana replies, “I don’t watch television because our TV doesn’t work.” Because there are no lamps in the house, the children wake at sunrise and go to sleep just after sunset. They sleep on a mat and their pillows are plastic bags stuffed with old clothes.

Salim would like to be able to earn his own money, perhaps by selling fruits and vegetables or operating a delivery service. “I wish I had work to earn money and feed my children,” he says. “I hope someone can help me save my children from this miserable life.”

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Fatma echoes her husband. “We need better clothes and shoes for the children, especially in the winter, and a home with running water, electricity, healthy food and milk, diapers, medicine, toys, furniture, and a kitchen with dishes and utensils,” she tells me. “And I need help to find work for my husband so he can earn money, because we can’t bear to live like this anymore.”