Amid growing poverty, payment card provides dignity, nutrition for some Gaza families

The Sahtein program aims to provide access to nutritious, fresh food for some of Gaza’s most impoverished families. 

Mohammed Asad APA images

Aida Abu Jabal and Fadel Abuelatta were among the customers shopping at al-Ailat grocery store in the Shujaiya neighborhood in eastern Gaza City around midday on a recent Monday. It was a perfectly ordinary scene, except that instead of paying for their purchases with cash, they were using their blue Sahtein payment cards.

Sahtein — an Arabic expression equivalent to “bon appetit” or “to your health” — is the name of a card scheme funded by the UN’s World Food Program and administered by the UK-based development organization Oxfam along with the Palestinian group Ma’an Development Center.

“This card has been very beneficial for the past six months. Prior to receiving it, I used to line up in a long queue to get a sack of flour for my five children,” Abu Jabal told The Electronic Intifada as she packed eggs, yogurt, lentils and rice into her bag. “But now, I come every week to this grocery store to buy a variety of things, as you see.”

A feeling of dignity

Abu Jabal, whose husband is unemployed, said that since she has had the Sahtein card, she has felt a greater sense of dignity in being able to buy things at a store like other people in her neighborhood.

Abu Jabal used to get food rations from CHF, an international charity in Gaza, which was the only charity the impoverished family had relied on for the past three years.

“My card purchase is worth about 70 shekels [$18], and I can say that I very comfortable using it. Also, I managed to get some food that helped increase the calcium and other nutritional substances for my children, instead of getting a sack of flour every two weeks,” Abu Jabal said before leaving the store.

“As you see, I can only buy few things — but I do feel comforted, using this card every week,” said Fadel Abuelatta, 45, who is unemployed and had less than $5 remaining on his Sahtein card.

“Every time I come here, I just feel I am a respectable citizen, like if I were in an advanced country. Something is better than nothing,” Abuelatta said as he handed the card to the shopkeeper to process.

Program begun after Israeli attack, expands

People like Abu Jabal and Abuelatta who are beneficiaries of the Sahtein program are from families classified by Oxfam and the World Food Program as among Gaza’s poorest and are in urgent need of food assistance.

Oxfam’s Inam Abu Nada has been in charge of implementing Sahtein. She pays regular visits to various areas of the Gaza Strip, where the program is being implemented in some shops or groceries.

“The program has been running since 2009 — mainly after the three-week Israeli attack on Gaza. In 2012, Oxfam, in cooperation with the WFP [World Food Program], decided to expand the program to include 5,000 households in various regions in the south, north and middle of the Gaza Strip. Prior to 2012, we used to have more than 2,400 beneficiary families and the majority were concentrated in Gaza City,” Abu Nada told The Electronic Intifada.

Low hemoglobin levels among children

Asked why the name “Sahtein” had been chosen, Abu Nada explained that by choosing an expression meaning “to your good health,” the program means to show that “we are keen to provide good and useful foodstuffs to the beneficiaries, as our main concern has been health of the children who belong to impoverished families.”

Abu Nada noted that prior to implementing the program, Oxfam and Ma’an conducted a joint study which measured children’s hemoglobin levels and found that they were low.

“Six months later, and after the families benefited from the program, we took another survey and found that hemoglobin levels for children had increased by 1 or 1.5 units,” Abu Nada said, an indication that children were benefiting from improved nutrition.

Some Sahtein users complained of the lack of sugar and tea within the lists of food items that the Sahtein card covers.

According to Abu Nada, this goes with Oxfam’s policy to provide good nutrition for the beneficiaries, especially children and the elderly.

“The new poor”

Oxfam’s communication officer in Gaza, Karl Schembri, spoke to The Electronic Intifada about the Sahtein program during an interview at his Gaza City office.

“Following the Israeli war on Gaza, there emerged what we call ‘the new poor,’” Schembri said. “By ‘new poor,’ I mean those who had lost their homes during the war, those who lost heads of their families or those who were rendered orphans because of the war. We thought of ways to help these people recover economically, so we invented the Sahtein card.

“We cannot provide everything, but at least we mean to help these people sustain somehow in some sort of dignity, rather than lining up in food distribution queues, something that can be seen in other places,” Schembri added. Sahtein users, he explained, are mainly those who do not rely on regular food aid provided by other international agencies.

In addition to expanding to 5,000 households, Schembri said that the number of participating shops would be increased from the current 46. While the program is intended to help people recover, Schembri stressed that “an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza once and for all will only help those people recover once and for all.”

Widespread poverty

Approximately 60 percent of Gaza’s population relies on some kind of food aid, and the unemployment rate is more than 30 percent, according to local and international agencies, amid widespread poverty.

Gaza-based economic expert Mohsen Abu Ramadan told The Electronic Intifada that a household that lives on less than 1,600 shekels ($415) per month is considered to be under the poverty line or in severe poverty, while those whose monthly income is less than 2,400 shekels ($622) is considered “poor.”

“I can attribute the high poverty and unemployment rates here to the persistence of the Israeli blockade as well as the division between Gaza and the West Bank. Since the imposition of the blockade, the majority of local industries have been forced to shut down, dozens of thousands of workers have stopped working, and imports and exports have been totally paralyzed,” Abu Ramadan explained.

The expert added that the current state of political division between Hamas-ruled Gaza and the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has created a lack of economic planning that is required to help organize commerce, agriculture and industrial activities in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Since June 2007, Israel has enforced a blockade on the Gaza Strip, preventing raw materials and other essential items from entering, as well as severely restricting the movement of people.

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.