With shortages of food, water and electricity, much of the population of Gaza is in desperate need of help. In one school building now turned into an overcrowded shelter, families who have fled their homes illustrate the huge challenge of putting their lives back together.
GAZA, State of Palestine, 14 August 2014 – Mariam Ahmad Al Masri says she did not have time to take any possessions with her as she fled heavy fighting in Beit Hanoun, in the north-east corner of Gaza. She and her children could only run for their lives.
“We did not even take money or gold. We left everything in the house, and now it has been destroyed. We could not even get slippers for our children,” she says.
“Look at this child,” she says, pointing to a little boy. “He is bedwetting. He lost control of himself. All the children here freak out at night. I tell them, 'Don’t be afraid, honey', but they still are.”
Several days into a fragile ceasefire, around 350,000 people are still taking shelter in United Nations–run and public schools, or staying with host families across Gaza. Their situation exposes the magnitude of need and the urgency of expanding the humanitarian response after weeks of conflict.
An estimated 100,000 people have no home to return to, after nearly 17,000 houses were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable in areas like Shejaya, Beit Hanoun and Khuza’a, where explosive remnants of war left by airstrikes and shelling pose a major threat.
Safer than houses
Many families who decided to go back to their houses came back to the shelters after realizing they could no longer access food, electricity or water in the areas where they used to live.
Although several schools have been shelled, causing death and injury among displaced families, people feel generally safer using them as a place of refuge. But life in an overcrowded school is not easy.
Clean drinking water is hard to come by. There is no electricity, and often no water left for basic hygiene. Diarrhea and skin diseases are on the rise among children, as are lice and scabies.
All the children staying in this school have been scarred by violence. They have seen their homes destroyed, had to run away during heavy fighting and been witness to scenes of violence, death and destruction.
An estimated 373,000 children are in need of psychosocial support in Gaza.
Together with partners, UNICEF is distributing food vouchers, hygiene kits, jerry cans and blankets to families staying in public schools. Emergency teams are providing psychological help to children suffering from profound distress, while safe spaces have been set up in shelters where children can play and participate in recreational activities.
The recent ceasefire has enabled UNICEF-supported teams to start repairing critical water infrastructure damaged by airstrikes and shelling, as the majority of the population continues to cope with severe shortages of water and power services.
“We received vouchers and canned food in order to feed the children, but the bathrooms here aren’t good – they are dirty,” Mariam says. “Water isn’t available, and there is no electricity, we all sit in the dark. This is not a life.”
The needs for children are immense, and bringing safety and stability to their lives again will be an enormous task.
Aseel Nabeel, 9 years old, sits in the school courtyard, where she arrived after fleeing the neighborhood of Shejaya, now heavily destroyed. “A missile fell on our house, on my bed, my books and my bag,” she says.
“Here we sleep on the floor – we don’t have mattresses, nothing. Our backs hurt. Our shoulders hurt. We can’t sleep at night.”
Scaling up response
“Of the last three conflicts in Gaza, this has been the longest, deadliest and most destructive. We need to rapidly scale up our response to address the needs of the people in Gaza now and in the longer term,” says June Kunugi, UNICEF Representative in the State of Palestine.
“We need to restore a sense of normalcy to children’s lives,” Ms. Kunugi adds. “But to do all that, we need a sustained halt to the violence and a durable solution that will guarantee children don’t have to live through a fourth war.”
For Aseel, normalcy means going home.
“I want my books, my bag and my bedroom. I want to be able to go home,” the little girl says. “I don’t want it to be destroyed anymore.”