Families forced to flee dream of going home

The estimated 1.8 million displaced Palestinians in Gaza have found temporary shelter in relatives’ homes, schools, hospitals and empty storefronts, and when there has not been space inside, they’ve set up tents outside, such as at this UNRWA school in Rafah.

Abdallah al-Attar

Sally al-Masri, 38, and her five children were forcibly displaced from Beit Hanoun to the southern city of Khan Younis on 13 October.

That day, the Israeli army ordered Palestinians residing in northern Gaza to head south to “safe zones.”

The family left their neighborhood northeast of Gaza City three hours later, bringing along a bag with clothing and personal papers.

“We visited a lot of schools in Khan Younis, but regrettably they were all full,” al-Masri said. “We had nowhere to stay. We were forced to come here, to Nasser hospital, and set up a makeshift tent.”

The estimated 1.8 million displaced Palestinians in Gaza have found temporary shelter in relatives’ homes, schools, hospitals and empty storefronts, and when there has not been space inside, they’ve set up tents outside.

As winter looms, those who have been forcibly displaced by Israeli attacks are concerned about surviving dropping temperatures and rainstorms.

At the news of rain this past week, al-Masri covered the family’s flimsy tent with wood and additional plastic tarps to protect it from flooding.

Many areas of Gaza are prone to flooding due to poor sewage and drainage infrastructure. Such infrastructure is poor because of repeated Israeli attacks.

The extra tarps and wood didn’t shield the al-Masri family from the rain and wind, as the family’s tent flooded and then collapsed.

“A kind man fixed it for me and my children after we remained outside in the rain without any weather protection and continued to shiver from the cold,” Sally al-Masri said.

“We were drenched, and everything got wet, including our food, bedding, mattresses and clothing.”

The family had no additional winter clothing, so even when they got their tent back up, they were still cold.

Wearing their summer clothing, they slept on wet beds covered with wet blankets. The rain, likely mixed with sewage, had turned their floor into muck and mud.

“We had one meal that morning”

According to the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), over 1 million Palestinians are currently living in their facilities in Gaza.

Despites the recent “pause” in fighting and the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza, the UN World Food Programme said that “there’s a risk of famine and starvation.” Al-Masri said that hunger is a serious problem.

“We didn’t even have bread to eat,” she said. “We had one meal that morning. Then they handed us a bag of rice, lentils, chickpeas, milk and flour that afternoon so we could make lunch out of it.”

She said that she begged other families for food to feed her hungry children.

“Someone gave me three dishes of rice. I felt embarrassed when I took them,” she said.

Waterborne illnesses are an additional concern as sewage mixes with rainwater and floods tents. Children in particular are susceptible to diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems.

Winter flu

Over the past three weeks, Hamza Sulaiman, 37, has been living at an UNRWA school in Khan Younis.

He survived an Israeli massacre on his parents’ three-story building in the Jabaliya area of Gaza. He was taken to the Indonesian hospital in northern Gaza for treatment, and he left in a wheelchair.

Now, the weather poses a struggle daily. With just three thin mattresses and a few blankets in a small room at the school, Sulaiman and his family are not well protected from the cold and rain.

“Each one of my family members took one blanket and mattress, but I don’t have one,” Hamza said. “I was curled up on my chair, pulling my jacket over my legs to feel less cold at night.”

“The UNRWA blankets are so light that [my kids] were unable to get any sleep,” he said. “They were shriveling all night from the cold.”

Taj, Hamza’s daughter, woke up sick one evening, with what they believe is the flu. She had a fever and a sore throat.

The school’s health center, which provides some medical care to the displaced, was closed at the time. They had nowhere to take her.

“I made her a cup of warm tea,” her mother Amal said. “I stayed awake all night watching her health. I was putting cold compresses to her forehead to lower her temperature until the next morning, when I could go to the health center and get her a prescription.”

Once Taj’s condition improved, Amal went to a clothing market in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, during a nearby heavy Israeli bombardment. A few shops were open, but they were nearly empty.

She found the last two items of winter clothing.

“I quickly picked them up before another woman did,” she said. “I didn’t mind if they were a little bigger or smaller in size. All I want is for my kids to be warm throughout the winter.”

From a nice life to breathing in asbestos

Samah Abu Rayya, 35, is currently living in a tiny apartment in Rafah along with 10 other people, including her four children, husband and parents, who were all forcibly displaced by Israeli bombing.

Abu Rayya had been living well in Gaza, in a nicely furnished apartment. The place where they are sheltering now is cold and damp and full of asbestos.

It is located in the rooftop area of an apartment building.

It has a single bedroom, a living room and a bathroom.

The intense bombardments have dispersed asbestos throughout the apartment. Abu Rayya has covered various openings with plastic tarps to keep the rain out, yet the tarps often fly away, leaving the apartment exposed to the elements.

“When the rain started to pour heavily, my sister thought something was falling on her while she was sleeping,” Abu Rayya said. “The carpet, pillows, mattresses and blankets were all sopping wet.”

Abu Rayya’s sister and her parents sleep with her in the single bedroom.

“We don’t have a water heater,” she said. “It’s too cold to touch the water. We’re not used to such a hard life.”

Khuloud Rabah Sulaiman is a journalist living in Gaza.

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