To be Displaced at an UNWRA School in Gaza
October 26 2023
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Editor's Note: This testimony is based on conversations that the author has had with a family seeking refuge at her grandparent’s house in southern Gaza, after evacuating from their home to an UNRWA school. The author’s family also evacuated their home to the south, fleeing Israeli bombs.

Have you ever wondered what it means to be a displaced person sheltering at an UNRWA school in Gaza?

Gaza is experiencing severe shortages of water, flour, electricity, fuel, and medicine, as a result of Israel’s complete blockade on the Strip. The aid that has finally been permitted to enter — after several bombings of the Rafah Crossing — covers practically nothing of what the population in Gaza needs to survive.

So, as a family who was forced to flee their home, escaping bombardment to seek refuge at an UNRWA school — all while experiencing these conditions — what does it look like in these schools-turned-shelters?

You have no bed to lie on at night; no pillows, no blanket. Your mattress is the classroom floor. Your blanket is the clothes you wear. Nothing warms your body when it's cold. Your pillow is the small emergency bag you packed before you fled your home, stuffed with some clothes and important documents, such as your ID, birth certificate and passport (if you have one, it’s a luxury for Palestinians living in Gaza) as well as a few paracetamol tablets to treat headaches.

If you’re a female, you take pills to delay your period as long as possible, since you have no menstrual pads, due to a shortage caused by the Israeli blockade.

There is no water to drink, wash clothes or shower with. You scramble to find water for your family. You might be able to fill a tank or two from the mosque nearest to the school.

To use the bathroom, you wait in line behind hundreds of people. Because there is no water, you use wet wipes to keep yourself as clean as you can. You won’t feel comfortable in the bathroom: another hundred people are waiting outside for you to leave, knocking on the door and urging you to finish.

There is a shortage of flour in Gaza, so there’s not enough bread. You purchase the one bundle allowed per family, even if it is not enough to sustain them. You wait for hours in the bread line with hundreds of other people, sweaty, irritated, and afraid of being bombed. UNRWA personnel give you white cheese daily. It is not enough, but you are grateful for the charity.

There is no electricity anywhere in Gaza, because there is no fuel and the power was unreliable to begin with, so you can’t charge your family’s phone devices, unless you are lucky to find somebody living in the neighborhood near the school whose building is powered by solar energy.

There is no internet connectivity at all in the school, so you can’t assure anyone that you are still alive, and you can’t be assured about loved ones elsewhere in Gaza. You live in constant confusion and worry.

You struggle with anxiety, irritability, boredom, and quiet anger.

It is very much like being imprisoned. You are punished, although you did not commit any crimes. You are full of rage, unable to prove your innocence in a world that sees you as a terrorist, when all you fight for is freedom.

Being a displaced person at an UNRWA school means that you are constantly looking at the sky, praying that the place that shelters you will not be bombed; that you and your family will not be massacred. It is to constantly visualize your parents and siblings under the rubble of the school, your body torn apart, unable to help them, your soul departed.

About The Author: 

Shahd Safi is an Arabic/English translator and teacher, freelance journalist, social media coordinator, and human rights advocate based in Gaza. 

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