On the coldest night in January, while the rain was falling heavily, I was sitting in my house in front of the stove, covered with three blankets, drinking hot coffee and watching TV. However, I was still shivering. Suddenly, I stopped shivering and stared at the TV. It was broadcasting a report about life in the caravans, the container-like, temporary homes that house nearly 500 Gaza families whose homes were destroyed by the massive Israeli assaults during the summer of 2014. Most of them are in Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip, and Khuza'a, a neighborhood of Khan Younis to the south.
The TV report described the conditions of the caravans: lack of plumbing, making it difficult to keep the structures or the inhabitants clean; frequent electrical shortages; and a lack of insulation that makes them feel like ovens in summer and freezers in winter.
"They are very poor," my 9-year-old brother, Mohammed, said and asked me, "Why do they live there and how can they bear this chilly weather?" At that moment, I decided to visit some of the families living in these caravans, looking for answers to Mohammed's questions. And I had the perfect person to help me: my aunt, who works for ANERA (American Near East Aid).
It was my first visit to Khan Younis, about an hour from Gaza City where I live. The views were so beautiful along the way: The blue sea was on my right side and farmlands with palm trees on my left. The taxi driver was like a tourist guide, showing me amazing, huge areas that were Israeli settlements until 2005, when they were pulled out by their government and Gaza’s isolation deepened. We reached the Al-Qarara neighborhood; the car stopped in front of Ayman's caravan. Ayman lives with his wife, four children and aunt in a small caravan after he lost his house during the last war launched on Gaza in 2014.
Ayman welcomed me into the caravan to meet his wife, Mona. She was obviously very tired; Mona met me with a pale face, putting her hand on her bowed back. It seemed as if she could not stand easily. "I am sorry, but I have just returned from free clinic," she apologized and asked me to sit inside. The wooden floor was shaky, and a narrow aisle divided the caravan into two: On the right side was a small, sandy area—with insects crawling on the ground—that the children used for play and to study. On the left was a small kitchen, bathroom and bedroom in which the entire family slept. I sat on a mattress in the sleeping area and looked around. The room was empty except for some mattresses and something that seemed like wardrobe; however, in fact, it was just some broken wooden shelves containing a few, torn clothes.
The family has been living in what Mona calls a “grave” for a year and three months. One day during the last war, in the midst of the holy month of Ramadan, warning rockets hit and all of their neighbors evacuated their houses; however, Ayman refused to leave. So, as usual, Mona prepared their food after fasting from sunrise to sunset. Just before sunset, when they were about to break their fast, warplanes dropped another warning rocket in the area, and it was clear they no longer could stay. Mona sent the four children to her father's house, about 10 minutes away by foot, and she stayed with Ayman. After less than hour, the situation worsened. The Israeli army went crazy with bombs and rockets lighting the sky, and special forces parachuted in from warplanes, shooting toward their house. They fled then to Mona’s father's house, where her siblings now were sheltering as well.
Three hours passed. It was 10 p.m. and her father’s house now was in danger as well. Ayman, Mona, their children and her family left the home, but there was no place to go. "The UNRWA school is the last chance to survive," Ayman said he shouted. They walked barefoot for an hour in the dark, deserted streets; they could barely see their way. In the school, they crowded into a small classroom where 43 children, women and men also were sheltering.
Finally, a lasting ceasefire was declared and the school had to expel them to start classes. However, the family had no place to go. "We should return to our house," Ayman remembers saying. But when they arrived, Mona could not stop her tears from falling when they found their house destroyed. Ayman built a small room for them all to live in with scrap wood, and they stayed there for three months. Then an organization called the Bayader Association gave them the caravan.
"We are dying slowly," Mona replied when I asked her my brother's question, "How can you live here?" She continued, "You see the old, torn clothes and mattresses I collected from my destroyed house and from my relatives." In the cold rainy nights, she cannot sleep; she holds her youngest son, Basel, 5, in her lap to give him warmth until he drifts off. While she talked, I noticed her swollen fingers the marks of the scabies she suffers from after living in this caravan.
On a piece of paper, Basel drew for me his dream: living in a beautiful, pink house. Despite the difficult circumstances, Mona insists on teaching her children to believe in a better future. Mona and Ayman taught me good lesson: As long as we live, never give up or lose hope.
Ayman and Mona are not alone. More than 16,000 families, amounting to approximately 90,000 people, remain displaced or homeless 18 months after the 2014 war. Reconstruction or repair of the homes of 74 percent of Palestinian families who were displaced has not even begun.
Posted February 20, 2016
Mentor: Pam Bailey