Winter in Gaza: A Delicate Balance

24 December 2013
Winter in Gaza: A Delicate BalanceWinter in Gaza: A Delicate BalanceWinter in Gaza: A Delicate BalanceWinter in Gaza: A Delicate BalanceWinter in Gaza: A Delicate BalanceWinter in Gaza: A Delicate Balance

For Salah Uliyan, a Palestine refugee in Beach camp, Gaza, daily life is a numbers game: There is a careful arithmetic that gets him from each day to the next.

He is the head of an eight-person family - including himself, his wife, and the four daughters and two sons who range from 2 to 17 years old. The home they own - one room, a small bathroom and a kitchen - is exactly 60 square meters.

Gaza story

© Photographer Shareef Sarhan/UNRWA Archives

But those numbers are just the basics. He is unable to work, because of a 60 per cent disability in one hand, and has traveled to Egypt twice for treatment. A daughter, Nasma, suffers from a gland disease and needs treatment abroad.

The social safety net provided by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is an important lifeline for his family - a credit in balance book. Mr. Uliyan managed to buy some clothes, as well as a washing machine. The UNRWA Job Creation Programme also provided three months of much-needed employment.

This delicate equation was thrown completely off balance by the harshness of the urgent winter, an unexpected challenge in already arduous situation. Facing not just cold and power cuts but also heavy rains and floods, problems they had not budgeted for, Salah Uliyan's family has entered a new period of uncertainty. Though they are on the list for UNRWA-supported shelter reconstruction, it's unclear when that will become possible.

Gaza story

© Photographer Shareef Sarhan/UNRWA Archives

As in many households, it's the mother who has the clearest record of the accounts. "I'm trying to make ends meet," she explains. "I use fire to cook and to bake the food of our life, bread, but the rain makes it impossible - we have no other place for the fire." The family has had to approach neighbours in order to cook and bake. This, however, was followed by yet another challenge, when flooding in the house made her slip, breaking her hands.

This family's story is not atypical. For many Palestine refugees in Gaza, daily life has become all about numbers - the number of hours there will be electricity, the number of days their children are hungry - and as this winter begins, they are forced to recalculate for even more challenges than they, or UNRWA, had anticipated.

Over five days in December, Gaza received an estimated 75 per cent of its normal winter rainfall. The numbers speak for themselves: At the height of the storm, around 10,000 people had been displaced, and 1,500 homes were damaged or destroyed. As the water recedes, a new round of calculations will have to begin.