On Sha’af street in Gaza City, twenty-five men work in unison, clearing the rubbish and sweeping away the dust that clogs the side of the road. They're all distinguished by the white caps they wear. It is hard work — and dull work — but from their focus on the task at hand, and the smiles and laughs they occasionally share, it is clear they are happy to be doing it.
One of the workers, a man named Yasser who's around 50 years old, pauses for a moment leaning on his broom and tells me he joined the road-cleaning program just the previous week. Until five years ago, he says, he was a construction worker travelling back-and-forth into Israel each day, but since travel restrictions were imposed on Gaza he has lost this source of livelihood and hasn’t been able to find work since.
Now though — along with 150 other men — Yasser has work earning around US$15-20 each day, which helps him support his ten family members. It's starting to make a small difference to the quality of life for communities living in the area by cleaning the streets and planting trees.
“How will you use the money”, I ask him, “on food, rent, clothes for your children…?”
“Food”, he says immediately, with a shrug, “just food.”
Since the conflict in January 2009, Mercy Corps’ cash for work programs have provided crucial income support for more than 8,000 Gazans like Yasser, who are unable to find work in an economy devastated by bombs and the blockade, and whose families are literally struggling to survive. The road-cleaning program is just one of a number of different types of cash-for-work activities that Mercy Corps is currently implementing with funding from European Commission Humanitarian Aid (ECHO), with others including baking, sewing, fisheries and after-school support activities.
Over the past two days I’ve visited a number of these different projects, in each hearing painful stories of loss and struggle. I see gratitude and relief at the crucial help that paid work for two months provides, but also see only too clearly the underlying desperation of individuals struggling to provide for their families, and unable to control their fate.
I will write more tomorrow.