By Catherine Weibel
GAZA STRIP, Occupied Palestinian Territory, 17 August 2011 - Ayman, 15, lives in Khuza’a, an impoverished village in southern Gaza, where extreme poverty has dramatically increased due to the blockade. For Ayman, whether or not he’s able to go to school each day is determined by how much food is left in the cupboards.
“Every morning, the first thing I do is go to the kitchen,” he said. “If there is food, I go to school; if there is none, I go to work.”
Lives in danger
Sadly, Ayman’s case is not uncommon. Last year, over 50 children aged 13-16 had to leave school to help feed their families. Many of these children work in the dangerous “buffer zone”*, a no-go military area which runs along the barrier separating Gaza from Israel. Children enter the zone to collect gravel, plastic or scrap metal in the rubble of houses destroyed two and a half years ago during operation “Cast Lead”. The gravel sells for less than a dollar a bag to local factories for construction, since imported building materials are severely restricted by the blockade.
Working in the “buffer zone” is a dangerous activity. Israeli Security Forces systematically shoot towards anyone entering the zone, citing security reasons. This access-restricted area, which is officially 300 meters deep, was unilaterally imposed by Israeli authorities in May 2009. In the past 18 months, UNICEF and its partners documented 30 children shot by Israeli Security Forces when working in or near the “buffer zone.” However, the number of children injured has sharply decreased over the past five months.
“Children could go and pick rubble in safer areas, but it would not be sustainable,” Al-Qarra explained. “They cannot afford to pay four shekels on transport when they earn a maximum of ten shekels a day (three USD).”
‘No choice left’
Ayman believes he has no choice but to work in the “buffer zone” in order to help keep his family alive. “I cannot allow myself to think about the risks,” he explained. “I have 12 family members and I need to help feed them.”
Those risks are all too real, as Ayman spoke of an incident in March, when his friend was grazed by a bullet. “At first, Israeli soldiers shoot in the air,” he said. “If we don’t leave immediately, they shoot at us.”
Recently, in an attempt to escape a hail of bullets fired in his direction, Ayman broke his foot when a large block of concrete fell from atop a donkey cart he’d been using to transport the collected rubble.
“When they start shooting I try to leave the area as soon as I can,” he said. “But I can’t afford to leave behind the rubble I’ve collected.”
A heavy toll
Aymen’s friend, Mazen, 16, has been collecting rubble since his father left home, leaving him to provide for his ill mother and five siblings. Mazen, who suffers from back pain due to the heavy blocks he carries, dropped out of school several months ago. His mother owns a piece of land in the “buffer zone,” near the barrier but has not been able to access it since 2009 due to Israeli shooting in the area.
“I have lost my only means of livelihood, I cannot afford to buy milk or juice for my children,” she said. “All I can do is tell him to be careful and run away the minute he hears shooting,” she cried.
To help children overcome poverty and reduce school drop-out rates, UNICEF supports 38 adolescent-friendly centres and family centres in Gaza, with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), The European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO) and Bank of Palestine. The centres offer safe play areas, remedial classes, sport classes and psycho-social support in a safe environment.
With his friends, Ayman goes regularly to one such centre. As he entered the facility, his face lightened upon seeing the colorful balloons being used for the recreational activities that day. “It’s so good not to have to think about work for a few hours,” the 15-year-old whispered.
The head of the centre, Sabah Al-Qarra, often tries to talk Ayman into attending remedial classes and going to school more often. “I keep wondering what these kids will become when they grow up, without any qualifications,” she said. “It is heartbreaking to see them torn between the urge to help their families survive, and the dream of going to school and building a future.”
* The “Buffer zone” is also known as the “Access restricted area”.