desperate, desperate: Gaza Ramadan day 23

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*Hamsa al Bateran, outside his one-room home, April 2009

Yesterday Hamsa called me. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him, though I did visit his family two weeks ago –he was out, looking for work.

Hamsa has never directly asked for any help. It has been due to my suggestions and the financing of outside supporters, that Hamsa accepted the small donations offered. His initial reaction was evident disgust at the notion of being helped by someone. I made clear that the donations being offered were in solidarity, were not intended to be a permanent reality rendering Hamsa aid-dependent.

Rather, we acknowledged that his donkey had been killed in the Israeli war on Gaza, that his means of an income –however paltry –had been destroyed.

With reluctance, Hamsa accepted a few donations. With some money, he bought chickens, to produce eggs for his wife and he and possibly to sell them. With a larger donation we bought a horse to replace his donkey. He began scouring the streets again for recyclable plastics, creating work for himself. Periodically, he would be asked to move things with his horse and cart, for a fee.

His horse got ill. This was problematic as he could no longer work with it and he was spending precious money on vet fees and medicine for the horse.

Then Hamsa’s newborn son, Ali, got ill.

He didn’t even call me then to ask for help.

He sold the horse, spent much of the money on Ali’s hospital bills and Ali improved.

Now, his 3 month old is in good health, he swears. And his wife Iman’s health is also fine.

But Hamsa has no source of income yet again, and his legs are giving him trouble.

After his first donkey was killed, Hamsa collected the plastics using his bike to get around. He made many trips and earned a bare minimum, below the bare minimum for most of us.

But he’d say, “we’re living, we’re getting by,” when I asked.

When I visited Hamsa first, I saw the hole they live in. I know that a great many Palestinian in Gaza are cramped in similar hovels. Yet when you get to know the individuals living in such conditions, the shock of their situation hits home.

Hamsa and Iman live in what must be 4m by 4m concrete brick room with asbestos tiling. Everything about it is wrong, bad for their health, difficult. In summer it boils, no breeze enters the single window, and the smell of the toilet adjacent (no door) belches into their living/dining/cooking/sleeping room.

In winter it will be frigid, freezing.

They cook over kerosene, or sometimes fire when they scavenge wood. Their diet is substandard, like the majority in Gaza, relying heavily on bread, cucumbers, tomatoes. Potatoes enrich it somewhat.

The chickens have gone, their income is gone, the days are still hot, Iman breastfeeds Ali but her own nutrition is poor.

Today Hamsa called me again, desperate.

“Where are you? Can you visit?”

On the sea at the time, I went to him some hours later, asking him to meet me in between the port and his home, in Saha market.

He continues to age quickly, the stress of worrying about existing adding lines to his face. He’d looked more youthful even 5 months ago.

Walla the life is so hard now. So hard. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how we’re going to survive this.”

He had never complained before, not when his horse was ill, not when Iman was near delivery and they didn’t have money for the hospital and doctor fees.

He was almost complaining today, rightfully.

“I don’t have a Palestinian huwiyye,” he said of the Palesitnian ID card. His family is from Gaza originally, but he was born in Jordan and holds a Jordanian passport. His wife is from Gaza, his mother and siblings live here. But he’s not able to receive the UN dry food aid, without a huwiyye.

“I don’t get the food aid that others do. I don’t get any compensation, any aid.”

He wasn’t actually complaining. He was just going over and over in his mind, and now out loud, how desperate his situation has become.

“I went back to apply for day labour.” He had told me earlier that he’d put his name in at an office which lines people up with work, a cash for work program. But he’s never been called.

“I’ll do anything. I thought about working in the tunnels. But I’m terrified. You put your hand in the tunnel shaft and it’ll collapse on you or the Egyptians will send poisonous gas through. People die every week in the tunnels.”

He’s right about this. The tunnels –much covered in the media for their role in smuggling anything, but mostly daily goods and foods banned by Israel, into Gaza –don’t get much coverage for their martyrs. Who are these young men (usually quite young, often from the same family) who risk their lives for a salary? What is their families’ situation? How desperate are they to take on such work.

As desperate as Hamsa, I’d wager.

“I don’t want to work in the tunnels. But I’ll do anything else.”

I believe him. It’s fairly humbling work to pick through rubbish for recyclables.

But Hamsa, while taking on the work others disdain, is proud, stands proud, and refuses to beg.

“I don’t want to be a beggar. I would die before that,” he said.

He talked of his expenses: “I spend at least 5 shekels a day on Ali. Milk costs 20 shekels every 3 days. Diapers cost 32 shekels a week.”

He tried explaining something about giving away their sleeping mattress… I lost it with my poor Arabic, but I gather that he had lent it to someone and it got ruined somehow.

Later, on the way home I see two eleven or twelve year olds, loaded with armfuls of plastic containers and a large sack of plastic from the rubbish.

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4 comments

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