Gaza, Differently Abled

PNN/ Rafah/

The road is empty. The rifts left by missiles on the walls of the houses are all that remains of the attack last summer. Along this dusty a hundred people died in a few hours, in retaliation for the Rafah alleged capture of an Israeli soldier, says one of the residents.

Between mud and birdseed, walking satisfied among 1,500 hens, Heyam stands in her yard, among fruit trees and vines. She bends a little and launches another birdseed. Heyam is disabled since her husband beat her so hard that put her in the hospital, damaging her back. Since then she is forced to do physiotherapy sessions. The family supports her new work: raising chickens to then sell the market. “I started in September, with the funding I received I bought the first 1,500 chickens. I sold them all and with the money I bought another 1,500. And so on”.

Her father is always near: after the divorce her large family has gathered around her and now everyone helps in the henhouse business. “Without the support of my father would have been difficult – continues Heyam – But my brothers give me a hand. The crisis is hard: they worked in homes reconstruction but raw materials don’t get to Gaza, the building sites are firm. My family survives thanks to my hens”.

An incredible victory: for a disabled woman, in Rafah, it would be normal to be excluded from society and the market. One of the most marginalized groups, for the role that is attributed to the woman: the person who takes care of the house and raised the children. If she is no longer able to do it, she has to prove herself useful another ways.

Italian NGO EducAid launched in Gaza, along with two local partners, a project of micro financing for women with disabilities: after a training in management, women are handed over € 2,500 with which to start their business, become independent, financially support their family and become aware of their rights and ability. An amazing challenge in a piece of land massacred by Israeli attacks and the double siege of Tel Aviv and Cairo, where unemployment is skyrocketing and the return to normalcy is an effort almost unbearable.

“I became aware of my abilities – concludes Heyam – Before I was the one that was backed up, today I am the one that supports the family. I make decisions alone and I am not afraid now to face out the barriers that society poses to women with disabilities”.

Barriers that may seem insurmountable, in El Amal, rehabilitation center of Rafah, don’t feel like it. El amal, the local partner of EducAid, is following the project of micro financing in the southern Gaza, in Rafah and Khan Younis. Founded in 1991, the first association to work in the south with disabilities, today is a flagship: a school for deaf children, a kindergarten, a clinic for diagnosis, another for therapy, training programs for the deaf one, a youth club that organizes cultural and sports activities.

“Before 1991, there were no centers in Rafah for disabled people – explains Darwish Abu Jihad, the director of El Amal – During the first Intifada we decided to open a center for people with disabilities, they took us for fools. We conducted a research and counted the presence of at least 3,700 disabled only in Rafah. It was not easy: many families tend to hide the disability, they experience it as a stigma, a punishment, and therefore the justification for social exclusion”.

“Today, many things have changed: the same families are those who ask us to put the children in our programs. But the active participation is still low: they enroll their children, but do not take part in the course due to lack of time, money, or simply because they do not know hoe to make the next step. They prefer the NGO to handle it all”. To pay the expenses are mainly women, adds Abu Jihad, already marginalized. And the state of siege makes things worse: “The lack of public funds and the economic unsustainability of our society prevents the creation of services, accessible infrastructure, which often absent even for non-disabled.”

In the deep south of Gaza, in the border town of Rafah, the siege effect is even stronger. Connecting bridge with Egypt, the more than a thousand tunnels that after 2007 were built to open up a window on the world and win the Israeli embargo, had disappeared. Bombarded or flooded by the Egyptian authorities led by President anti-Islamist al-Sisi, whose crusade to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood resulted in the suffocation of Gazan civilians.

The thousands of workers in the tunnel and industries have lost their jobs and Rafah withdraw itself.

In the alley leading to the house of Nida’a, a child on a bike lifts dust; a woman hangs out the clothes in front of the front door. Since early October, Nidaa launched her project: breeding rabbits. The sale goes well and Nidaa uses the money also to buy pigeons and doves. Amid the smell of bleach, she picks up one of the rabbits: “The day before the sale I go to the market to find out the prices. Rabbit meat is more expensive than chicken: 20-25 shekels per kilo. I take them to the market when the Palestinian Authority pays the salaries, so people have money to spend. ”

“These rabbits for me represent the independence, the chance to show the community that I am worth. I know what it means marginalization. Due to the continuous operations I could not follow the school lessons and I ended up always remaining a step behind the others. The lack of education and the inability to find a job made me feel alienated for years. But now I produce, work, manage my own business.”

It is the goal of El Amal and EducAid: “The project started in April – explains Doha, project coordinator of the Palestinian association – We launched training courses on media and financial management. Then we selected throughout Gaza 34 disabled women, to which we have delivered funding for the start of activities: workshops of embroidery, farm animals, accessories stores, and beauty salons. It’s a success: they no longer feel the excluded, they have become economically independent and very often they are the source of livelihood of an entire family. Before the lack of money excluded them from access to services. Their perspective is now changed: they perceive themselves as a person with a social role.

EducAid, El Amal and the Social Development Forum, the second local partner in Gaza City, will monitor the project until March then the women – who tell their stories in the magazine “Voice of Women” – will continue their activities on their own. Among them Sawsan El Khalili opened an embroidery shop in Gaza City. Active for years in the field of disability, she volunteered in the General Union for Disabled People and toured Europe and the Middle East to tell the condition of life of disabled people in Palestine.

“When my business will get going, I will hire another disabled woman to help me in the store. It’s my way to claim my rights and to combat social exclusion that hit me since school days. The siege completes the picture: wheelchairs, medicines and other kind of support machines do not enter. Getting out of the Strip is impossible even if you have to get cured. We are victims of too many sieges: the Israeli one, the social one, the one in which we close ourselves. I don’t accept this: I chose to recognize myself my own rights because I have a thousand skills and I am an opportunity for the community, not a burden”.