A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
Recent floods in Gaza drove thousands of people from their homes in the harshest winter in years. Outgoing Oxfam media officer Karl Schembri, has shared with us this piece, his final blog at the end of four years in Gaza. He finds that hope is still alive and people just want to provide a future for their families.
As my colleague Alhasan, an Oxfam public health worker, showed me his photos of the recent storm, there was one that felt like a stab to the heart. It showed a public garden – empty of people and completely flooded - that Oxfam built for the neglected Gaza neighbourhood of Al Zarqa.
Inside that little garden I have seen some of Palestine’s loveliest children, planting and watering trees with their eyes gleaming as one of their dreams came true. These same children previouslydrew for us a series of pictures showing the good, the bad and the ugly of their neighbourhood. A lot of the drawings shone a light on the trauma that these children witness on a daily basis because of the conflict and the blockade. Yet the drawing that grabbed most attention was of this idyllic green park, children playing blissfully under a smiling sun.
It is a long and cold winter
As I leave Gaza, it’s going through the coldest winter in my four years here, and in most of my Palestinian friends’ lifetime. Gaza’s 1.7 million Palestinians are trapped under a relentless blockade and face a daily struggle with shortages of power, fuel, and cooking gas. Over the winter, Gaza's infrastructure could not cope with the demand of sewage pumping stations already running at reduced capacity. Whole neighbourhoods flooded. I’m writing this by candelight as Gaza faces daily power cuts of 12 hours or more.
In the worst hit areas, fishing boats were organized to get people across the flooded areas. Thousands were unable to reach their homes. Oxfam distributed blankets, mattresses and hygiene kits to some of the people who were affected.
On an assessment of the flooded areas, we visited a food processing unit set up by women with Oxfam’s help. The storm damaged some of their raw materials and the solar-powered dryer, but it also meant they stopped production altogether for a week.
Women are keeping their families afloat
The women are so busy at work that they do not stop when they talk to us.
"It's great to get back to our work now," said Hanan, mother of five, as she busily made pastries for local schools. "We couldn't get here for a week because of the floods, and we were worried as we couldn't tell for how long they would last.
"The processing unit, which the women have set up under the brand name Amal (meaning 'hope'), is based in Deir al Balah, one of areas worst affected by the storm. In just one year, the Amal brand has established itself on the Gaza market through packaged maftoul (couscous) and warm foods made to order. Oxfam is now funding repairs to the equipment and physical damage to the processing unit.
Sabah Abu Awad, a 40-year-old mother of seven children, works here. For Sabah and her family, the storm was particularly disastrous as their already impoverished house was completely flooded. Two of her children were hospitalised with hypothermia. More than a week later, they were still living at a generous neighbour's house.
"We've lost everything, the little that we had," Sabah said. "We woke up at midnight and found everything flooded, with the children immersed in the water. My children want to go home but they are also afraid that this might happen again."
Her husband Yousef used to be an agricultural worker in Israel – until Palestinians from Gaza were banned from leaving the Strip. He said: "I put sandbags and plastic sheets on our roof to keep the rain from trickling in, and instead we got a flood that wiped our home away.”
Despite the tragic floods and the ongoing blockade, Sabah still looks at the silver lining. Her oldest daughter, aged 19, is studying at university to become a nurse. Sabah said she can only afford to send her daughter to university thanks to her earnings from the processing unit. Now she’s back to work to make sure life can get back to normal as soon as possible.
It is this sense of hope that I find so humbling and that I want to take with me as I exit Gaza for the last time in this four-year journey. Very few things change in Gaza, and I hope this quiet optimism will remain one of them.
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