Children rummage through Deir al-Balah’s dump on a constant basis.
Among them is an 11-year-old called Fadi. He goes to the dump – located in central Gaza – after school each day.
“We have no choice,” says his father Mustafa, who accompanies Fadi as they search for material they can retrieve and sell to recycling plants. “If we don’t do this, we will starve to death.”
Mustafa, a mechanic, has been unemployed for seven years now. Both he and Fadi have been injured while working at the dump.
The dangers of this work were demonstrated earlier this year.
In January, Osama al-Sirsik, 14, died at a dump in Johr al-Deek, south of Gaza City.
Osama had gone to work at the dump with his father Arafat. Together, they would collect any plastic and metal – particularly copper and aluminum – they could sell.
“We had to make a living”
“It was a cold, rainy day,” Arafat said. “But the weather didn’t stop us. We had to make a living.”
They had been at the dump for approximately two hours when Arafat realized that Osama was missing. Arafat’s first thought was that his son had been attacked by dogs.
Osama’s body was found following a lengthy search and it was determined that he died from traumatic asphyxia.
Arafat relies on his meager earnings from collecting recyclable material to feed his family. For the past four years, he has had no other source of income.
Osama was the eldest of his five children.
The child’s death prompted the Gaza municipality to ban the public from accessing the dump. The ban was contested by a number of people who depend on collecting reusable or recyclable waste for a living.
According to Marwan al-Ghoul, an official with the municipality, most people who collect material from the dump are unaware of how dangerous their work can be.
“They are just trying to make ends meet,” he said. “We are trying to find a solution urgently – especially because child labor is increasing.”
Work or starve
Omar, a father of seven, has refused to stop collecting waste from dumps. Two of his sons, aged 18 and 10, work with him.
“Sometimes I am not able to provide enough food for my family,” he said.
A blacksmith by training, Omar has long been unemployed. By collecting waste, he only makes a small sum – up to $9 per day.
“When I started doing this work, I felt ashamed,” he said. “But I no longer do. No one can stop me from scavenging. The officials want to stop us but I and many others will keep doing this work. I don’t want to do it. But I also don’t want my children to starve.”
The latest available data from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics suggests that less than 1 percent of Gaza’s children aged between 10 and 17 do either paid or unpaid work.
Gaza’s social development ministry, nonetheless, believes that child labor is on the rise.
Earlier this year, the ministry undertook a survey of 10,000 families in various parts of Gaza with an income of less than $250.
The survey – so far unpublished – found that 60 percent of parents who responded would be willing to have their children working as a last resort.
“Child labor in Gaza is the result of poverty, the Israeli blockade and unemployment,” said Iman Omar, a social worker with the ministry. “Most of the children who work also go to school. They work with their fathers or brothers in dumps or selling things.”
Sharif, 9, collects plastic material, empty cans and other metals from Gaza’s streets every day. As his father is dead, Sharif works to support his family.
“And I want to save enough money so that I can buy a smartphone,” he said. “All my schoolmates have smartphones and they watch soap operas and cartoons. We don’t have a computer or a phone in our home.”
Another boy doing similar work is 11-year-old Husam. His father has a disability and has long been unemployed.
Street cleaners and other people have tried to stop Husam from collecting material. But he has kept doing so.
He loads all the plastic and metals that he gathers from dumps and from streets onto a cart, which his older brother then brings to a recycling plant. The only significant precaution he takes is that he avoids dumps near hospitals, out of fear he will be contaminated by discarded syringes.
Along with his brother, Husam can make about $6 per day. He goes to a dump early each morning in the hope that he will be the first person there.
“Some days I cannot collect anything,” Husam said. “That’s because there are so many other children and even adults doing this kind of work.”
Ola Mousa is an artist and writer from Gaza.