Six months since the beginning of the 2014 conflict in Gaza, Claire Grant from CAFOD’s Humanitarian team reflects on the difference made by donations from Catholics in England and Wales.
Everyone in Gaza has a story. A story of longstanding hardship, of uncertainty, of loss and of hard-earned survival.
The 50 days of conflict last summer – which gave rise to Israeli bombardments, Palestinian rocket attacks and ground fighting – took their toll, killing more than 2,200 people, destroying over 20,000 homes and countless livelihoods. More than 2,000 of these people were Palestinian civilians, including 519 children.
In December, the media pictures of the destruction became real to me as I travelled to Gaza to meet families and communities supported by CAFOD, who each had their own personal stories to tell.
The Gaza Strip is merely 25 miles in length and seven miles wide. A short drive is therefore all that it takes to get an accurate picture of the devastation that shook the region to its core this summer.
My first meeting was with a young father, Mohammed Abu Anzah, who had been forced to flee his land with his family when his house was destroyed during aerial bombardments. He has now returned to his land, and I found him hard at work with a team of local labourers who had been funded by CAFOD to rehabilitate the area.
Standing beside his two little daughters, who were playing amongst the debris and building material, Mohammed told me how grateful he was that he can now plant olive trees, beans and chickpeas, which he will sell at the market. He is also building back his house.
Clearing the rubble
The story was similar for grandfather Tuw Feq El Qarraa who lost his means of making a living when his olive orchard was destroyed. He received support from CAFOD to help remove the rubble from his land and restart his business selling olives.
Sadly, this is not the first time Tuw has lost his land to attacks. He is picking up the pieces and starting again for the third time. Tuw explained to me that getting his orchard planted again would help him provide work for his family at a time when half of Gaza’s young people are unemployed. He said: “The support has helped me go back to how it was before the war.”
Aid agencies always talk about making people more resilient – but what does this really mean? It means having the ability to bounce back, to cope and recover from shocks, disruption and loss.
As relief and development agencies we have a role to play in helping both individuals and communities to recover, and to reduce people’s exposure to risk. And yet, in a situation such as Gaza, the reality is that regardless of our efforts, we cannot remove the ultimate risk of insecurity, and this has a huge impact on people’s wellbeing.
Heyam Aqual, mother of seven, told me: “We never feel secure. In any moment the bombings could start again.”
She knows that, despite the ceasefire, peace is fragile. Heyam lost her husband five years ago and during the summer had to evacuate her house three times as rockets fell.
CAFOD has been supporting Heyam and her family by providing water filters so that Heyam can have clean water at home for her family to drink. Heyam explained that before “her house was a shell” and it was hard for her to get clean water nearby, but piece by piece Heyam’s house feels more like a home.
So what can we do? We can stand in solidarity with the vulnerable and provide practical means to help people face life’s difficulties, so at the least they can survive and at most, thrive. Things like water filters may seem like a small addition to a home, but they have a big impact on quality of life.
Hope for children
It is a sad fact of war that those who suffer the most are the vulnerable. Over 500 children were killed during the summer months, countless were injured, and places of safety such as schools and kindergartens were also damaged or destroyed. I visited one of the kindergartens which are being rehabilitated under a CAFOD-funded initiative.
Jamila, a motherly figure with a gentle presence and sincere smile, greeted me at the door. She started this kindergarten 26 years ago and has devoted her life to children.
She has seen two generations of children come through her doors and noted to me how in her life experience it is harder today to be a child than ever before. Insecurity abounds and the hope for employment in the future is uncertain. Yet for now, she is determined to make life better for the children who come through her doors.
She chuckled as she described how some children hide at the end of the day because they want to stay and play. This, she said, is the first time in 26 years that anyone has recognised her efforts and given her support.
Her sincere and heartfelt thanks made me realise that in the midst of such destruction, we should continue to do what we can. It really does make a difference.
Claire Grant is an Emergency Response Officer in CAFOD’s Humanitarian team.