50 Years of Continued Suffering

April 1998

UNRWA - Palestine Times April 1998: As we are approaching the 50th anniversary of the usurpation of Palestine, about 3.5 million Palestine refugees continue to live under difficult conditions while waiting for a just solution to their problem. The following UNRWA feature highlights the suffering of the refugees through the story of Abu Ghaben family in Beach camp in Gaza Strip.

Just ordinary people

Beach camp is the third largest camp for Palestine refugees in the Gaza Strip, with a population of some 66,000 in 1997. Situated along the Mediterranean coast northeast of Gaza City, the camp, with its densely packed cement block shelters, covers an area of 747 dunums (74.7 hectares) and has one of the highest population densities in the world - about 85,000 people per square kilometre. It was established after the 1948 war to house some 23,000 refugees from Lod, Jaffa, Beersheba and the southern coastal plain. The camp has 17 UNRWA schools, a health centre, a women's programme centre, a distribution centre, camp relief and social services office and a sanitation office. Residents also use UNRWA's Rimal health centre in the town. In 1997 UNRWA rehabilitated several hundred shelters in the camp, but the waiting list is still long with at least 300 shelters in need of urgent repair.

Sloping down towards the sea, Beach camp is criss-crossed by hundreds of narrow sand-clogged alleys. For years, untreated sewage flowed freely down them and the perennial problem of flooding led to the sand being infected with parasites. Children have nowhere to play except in the sand and many of them were infected by the age of four with Ascaris (round worm). UNRWA has now tackled the problem by installing a new sewerage system with contributions from donor governments.

Jamal Abu Ghaben and his mother Um Jamal ("mother of Jamal" and grandmother of Bustan and Mohammad) welcomed UNRWA information staff into their shelter in the hope that taking their story to the donors' meeting would help increase support for all the other Palestine refugee families and for UNRWA's programmes in the camps. This is their story:

Um Jamal recounts the 1948 "disaster", as she calls it. Her parents fled Hirbiyeh, near Majdal (Ashqelon area) and she was born five weeks later on the way south. When she was only two her parents died and her eldest brother, then only 13, and her six year-old sister looked after the other children. "I don't remember my parents; I don't even know what they looked like. We have no photos of them."

The family spent the first six years in tents in the Tuffah neighbourhood of old Gaza and then moved to Jabalia after UNRWA started building a camp there. In 1984 Um Jamal, her husband and children moved to Beach camp to be near her sister. In 1997, Um Jamal and Abu Jamal, their sons, unmarried daughters, daughters-in-law and grandchildren all lived in the shelter - 18 people in all.

Twenty-seven year-old Jamal, the oldest son and father of Bustan and Mohammad, also lives in the shelter with his wife and third child. Jamal suffers from poor eyesight and broken teeth as a result of four years in Israeli prisons in the late 1980s. He is a prolific writer and has recorded in a diary all his thoughts since those days. In prison he also embroidered, "There is no home like the homeland, my son" and framed it with two of his prison photos.

On the day he was released, during the intifada in 1990, a curfew had been imposed. As he tried to find his way home he was shot in the neck for breaking the curfew and had to wait 14 hours before being taken to hospital. UNRWA later sent him to St John's Ophthalmic Hospital in East Jerusalem for eye treatment.

Despite four years of prison and four years of unemployment afterwards, Jamal still had the energy and ambition to start his own small business. In the beginning, he displayed his goods on the ground in the camp market. Then in 1996, with a small business loan of $1,000 from UNRWA's micro-enterprise programme in Gaza, he was able to rent a small shop in the market where he mainly sells children's clothes, cosmetics and accessories. Business was going well, especially on Fridays when the market is usually packed. Jamal paid off the first loan and then a second one of $2,000. In 1997 he took a third loan of $4,000.

Then Jamal's business, like many others, began to suffer under the impact of Israeli-imposed closures on Gaza and tougher restrictions on Palestinian labourers entering Israel for work. Products he had ordered and paid for in advance from the West Bank could not be delivered into Gaza and prices began to rise. Soon he could not make the monthly repayments.

It is Um Jamal's determination that keeps the family going. What does she think of the younger generation? "There was greater poverty when I was a child, but my life was still easier than Jamal's generation. They have had the hardest time. They experienced the intifada and prison. Also, they are educated. They know their rights and they have a sense of themselves. They won't compromise."

Talal, one of Jamal's younger brothers, wants to get married but there is no room in the overcrowded shelter. Another brother, Kamal, also lives there with his wife and five children. There is also the youngest brother, Noor, who is still at school, and three sisters, 20 year-old Samah, 16 year-old Sabreen and nine year-old Leina. Those members of the family who work are trying to raise enough money to build another room in the shelter, which will cost between $3,500 and $7,000.

The cement block shelter, built in the 1960s as temporary housing, is old and needs constant repair. Rainwater comes in through holes in the kitchen roof. Water from the bathroom seeps through to the adjoining kitchen floor, so this too needs to be repaired. Abu Jamal's main concern, though, is the lack of space for a growing family.

Another major worry is the rising cost of living. Food has become more expensive. Fifty kilos of flour costs $20 and it goes too quickly with so many mouths to feed. It is hard to keep up the electricity and water payments.

Um Jamal works with 13 other women and girls in a sewing group she administers. They are part of the Creative Women group whose members number about 60 in different camps in the Gaza Strip. She is skilled in traditional Palestinian embroidery and teaches younger women. With a small loan of $280 from the Save the Children Federation in Gaza, she bought thread and fabrics. Now she produces traditional dresses, tablecloths, scarves, cushion covers and other items that the group sells.

Economic problems, social and family problems, overcrowding. Everyone is becoming more and more stressed. Jamal borrowed his parents' savings to pay the monthly repayment on the UNRWA small business loan.

Now there is no money to build another room or partition. "This is breaking us," Um Jamal says. Jamal's father tells him that he and his family have two months to leave the shelter to make room for the younger brother, who wants to get married. In the meantime, Jamal and his family stay in their room but the door into the common area is locked and a new door into the alley is opened up. To reach the shared kitchen and bathroom now means a trek down the narrow alleyway.

Frustrated and locked in his own thoughts, Jamal starts to write. His hopes for the future are for a shelter for his family and stable employment. "But our problem, more than at any other time, is political not economic," he writes. "I need to breathe first and then eat. The political situation is ignoring the refugees. If we don't fight for ourselves, then who will?" The electricity goes off. Again. It could be off for hours. He continues to write by the light of a paraffin lamp...