Living in an Underground Cement Cube

Every building is damaged. Elementary school, Gaza.

One of the many consequences of the 12-year Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip is the prevention of the reconstruction needed following past wars on the strip. This has prohibited thousands of families in Gaza’s eight refugee camps from having their homes repaired—forcing them to live in dilapidated, unsafe structures.

Most of their houses were built in the 1950s-‘60s by UNRWA (the UN agency charged with helping Palestinian refugees) to replace the earlier tents first erected when they were forced to flee their ancestral land to make way for the creation of Israel. Over the years, the surrounding ground has accumulated dirt and sand, making it appear like the old houses—cement walls erected directly on the land, without a proper foundation—are sinking. The lack of foundations—as well as the absence of a sewage-disposal system—stems in part from the original belief that the houses were needed only temporarily until the refugees returned home. Since then, the blockade has prevented the import of materials for improvements.

To truly understand the resulting living conditions, one must visit—as I did one day on a trip to see one particular family in the al-Shati (“beach”) Refugee Camp.

When entering the camp, the first impression is of hundreds of houses that all look the same: cement cubes, or cells, that appear glued together they are so close. In fact, it’s almost hard to tell which door is for which building. My other immediate observation was the windows. Due to the sinking effect, the original windows were too low to offer proper light or even a real view to the outside. Over time, they have been cemented in and tiny, additional openings have been added, although they are too high to reach. They provide a little light, but not enough to dispel the oppressive feeling.

I entered the home of Fares and Najwa al-Sayyid Jad, their four daughters and one son. (All of their children are under the age of 12!) It was 5 p.m., after sunset, and the camp had begun to be swallowed by darkness. But inside their house, I found four “Little Suns,” portable solar lamps from the Rebuilding Alliance, lighting up each corner.

“Those Little Suns have helped us hugely. We used to light candles, but they are expensive and I knew too they were dangerous around my kids,” said Najwa, adding that Fares is ill with a nerve condition and cannot work. “Oh, Allah! We finally have sunlight inside our rooms!”

Inside, the house is like the outside, all cement. There is a room for the parents, one for all of the children, a kitchen and a newly added tiny bathroom.

“We never had a bathroom before, until the Youth Vision Society built this one for us months ago, so we don’t have to go to the bathroom in the kitchen,” Najwa told us, noticing our reaction. Before the separate bathroom was built, the family had to settle for a sewage hole in the same room used for cooking!

Eleven-year-old Abdullah took us around the house, pointing out the needed repairs and explaining how his father struggled to find help to improve the home. In the kitchen, he showed us a corner where they shower by having their mother pour buckets of water over them.

Fares spoke up then:

“See this, miss, this is the line from the rainwater. Because of how low our house sits, water seeps inside our house each winter, along with sewage and all kinds of dirt. It reaches to about 80 centimetres (32 inches).” Each time that happens, the family must call the firemen, who bring a large truck to pump out the dingy water. However, their meagre possessions often are ruined.

“In winter, I never sleep at night; I always stay up to watch for rain. If it gets heavy, I wake up the rest of the family and we immediately leave the house before the pressure of the water prevents the door from opening and we drown inside,” he said.

Deena, 12, added: “Many times, I wake up in winter to find I am sleeping in sewage water. I am always sick in winter; it is very cold and I lost my only blanket the last time the house drowned in water.”

Because of this, many camp families lose most of their donations from UNRWA, their primary source of food, along with their few pieces of furniture, clothes, mattresses and blankets.

“We don’t even eat every day, and now the United States is cutting UNRWA aid,” Fares said with frustration.

Four-year-old Nadine piped up: “We eat meat only once a year, during Eid al-Adha (an Islamic holiday).”

Rats are another problem. “One day, I woke up feeling something biting my toes, so I moved my blanket to see, and it was a big rat!” Sama, 6, told me.

Abdullah jumped in, continuing the story: “I raised a cat to help us catch the rats and mice that enter through the ceiling.”

A year ago, Najwa added, it was even worse. But then a donor gave them some thin iron and zinc sheeting for the roof. More aid has come from NGOs that pay some of their bills and provide them with blankets and mattresses to replace those that are damaged by rain and sewage water. But this cycle of destruction and NGO aid will not end unless the camp’s houses can be made level with the surrounding ground.

“This is the only wish I have every winter: that someone will come and raise the ground under our house at least a meter,” said Najwa pointing to the home’s now-rotten walls.

Almost all of the families in al-Shati Refugee Camp, and the other camps in Gaza, face the same hardships, especially in winter. Half of the houses still have ceilings made of asbestos, which has been shown to cause disease when its dust is inhaled. Internationally, asbestos is now forbidden as a construction material. But it’s as if Gaza refugees have been forgotten—or judged not worthy of basic protection and rights.

This article previously appeared in We Are Not Numbers and is republished with permission. Photograph courtesy of Oxfam. Published under a Creative Commons license.