Life as a refugee in Gaza: “We had nothing except for the clothes we were wearing”

20 January 2015
Hani Uliwa stands in the ruble of what was once the family home. © UNRWA Photo by Shareef Sarhan.

Hani Uliwa’s deadpan eyes move slowly across the cement rubble that was once his family’s living room. His movements are stilted. His greying skin wears the battered scars of a troubled life. A deep sigh is released before the 44 year old begins to explain what life has been like living as a refugee in the Gaza Strip. 

Obligated to cut short his education to support his family, Hani’s working life started at 17 years of age, labouring in construction in Israel. But during the second intifada, in 2000, he was forced back to Gaza where the only paid employment he could find was setting himself up as a taxi driver, using his savings to buy a car. 

”I used to earn a monthly income of US$ 1,200 when I worked as a labourer, but then earned US$ 200 as a taxi driver. This drastic decrease in income made it very hard for me to make ends meet,” Hani says. 

There are many mouths reliant on Hani. In 1990, at age 20, he was married. He now has eight sons and one daughter aged between five and 24. 

Muna, Hani’s 40-year-old wife, says that life is very difficult in Gaza, particularly following the demolition of the family home during the recent conflict. “Fortunately, my family managed to survive the heavy bombing in Toufah Area, Gaza City, and took refuge in al-Yarmouk area. First, seven days at my brother-in-law’s home, then at an UNRWA shelter in Beach Camp. Finally, at an UNRWA Collective Centre at Zaitoun Prep Girls School.

“When we arrived at the Collective Centre, we had nothing except for the clothes we were wearing. We received mattresses and blankets, some clothing and other basic supplies.”

In early November 2014, after shelter assessments declared their home destroyed, the family received US$ 1,500 from UNRWA – US$ 1,000 transitional shelter cash assistance and a US$ 500 reintegration package.

“We managed to rent a flat close to our demolished home and we bought a washing machine and kitchen kits to have the minimum requirements for living in the new apartment,” Muna said.

Since the deadly summer conflict broke out in July 2014, the family has remained reliant on UNRWA services to meet their basic needs. This includes utilizing UNRWA food, health, education and social service support – a programme that has spiraled from supporting 80,000 Palestine refugees in Gaza in 2000, to over 867,000 registered beneficiaries since 2014. 

With the seven-year Israeli-imposed blockade crippling local industry, the Uliwa family now depend exclusively on the UNRWA food assistance programme for daily food needs. Hani’s modest self-employment as a taxi driver was cut short when his car was destroyed in the summer conflict; however, he has been able to secure employment working as a bus driver for a private school and earns US$ 120 per month. Thousands of others in Gaza are not so lucky. 

Prior to the summer hostilities, the unemployment rate in Gaza surged to a record high 44.5 per cent in the second quarter of 2014 according to data from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Almost half of all refugees are unemployed (45.5 per cent); the highest level ever reported in the UNRWA PCBS-based records.

Hani wastes little time explaining how precarious day-to-day life has become for his family. “Electricity is a concern for everyone in Gaza. It poses additional challenge to our weary family, I am unable to warm my children in this urgent and hard winter; my children need electricity to study, and it is very hard living conditions without electricity,” he says.

Despite these hardships, Hani’s wife Muna is trying to remain optimistic for the sake of her children. “The only dream I have now is to see my home rebuilt and to move to a normal life again, with a permanent job for my husband,” she says.