A year after conflict, families are determined to rebuild

West Bank and Gaza, June 11, 2015

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  • In southern Gaza, families who can't return home are now living in makeshift caravans until they can rebuild. But rebuilding is its own challenge. All photos: Mercy Corps

Destroyed homes dot the landscape of Gaza with few signs of repair. Little has changed since a brutal 51-day conflict erupted last summer. A ceasefire finally held in August 2014, but the struggle for families affected by the war is far from over. In one hard-hit area of southern Gaza called Khuzaa, 600 homes were completely destroyed and 700 were damaged during the fighting.

Families can no longer live inside their damaged or destroyed houses, so instead they’ve placed tents and temporary shelters just outside — so they can survive as close to home as possible. Nearly a year after the war, Mercy Corps is helping families cope with their new reality, and give them the support they need to recover.

One of those families is the Al Najjars, who now live in a temporary shelter, called a caravan. Wasfy Al Najjar and the rest of his family are still struggling to deal with life after conflict. Their daily lives have been irrevocably changed.

“Before the war, all of the family worked together in agriculture. We had chickens and animals. We lost everything during the war, we couldn’t even get clothes,” says Wasfy. “After they destroyed our house, we moved to a school.”

Even after the fighting finally stopped, the family faced more challenges. “Once the war ended we did not have the money to rent a house. We moved back to our damaged house and built a tent out of nylon sheets,” says Wasfy. “We lived in the tent for 27 days until we got the caravan.”

Before the war, the Al Najjar family had enough to be happy and healthy, and even to help others. But now, they are reliant on humanitarian assistance to survive.
During last summer’s conflict, and in the months after, Mercy Corps provided food, emergency supplies and household items to people who were displaced by the fighting.

The team also set up tap stands to provide clean water, provided temporary shelter materials, and offered psychosocial support for young children who were traumatized by the horrors they witnessed. Now, we are working to make life easier for families who were displaced by the conflict, and help them recover from the trauma of war.

An area in Khuzaa where homes once stood is now a pile of rubble. Families who lived in homes like these are now forced to live in tents or caravans until they can rebuild.

As we talk to Wasfy, other members of the extended family trickle in and some women start making bread in the kitchen area. An older woman, Hassnar Al Najjar, passes a bowl of freshly picked peas and explains that she gathered them from the land where their farm was once located.

She lives with Wasfy and joins the conversation about their new life after the conflict. She points out one of the women who came in and shares that she was a new bride when the conflict started, “She lost all of the new things she had bought for her house,” Hassna says sadly as the woman nods.

The conversation eventually turns to their new living arrangements. The temporary shelter the family lives in was built in a hurry using what corrugated metal, plywood, and sheetrock could be found — there are tight restrictions on importing construction materials into Gaza.

The shelter is small and has no insulation to protect the six people living there from the elements. To help give the family more space, Wasfy had an extra room built from tarps and concrete blocks. The new area houses the kitchen and living area, leaving the two larger rooms inside for bedrooms.

Wasfy and his relative Hassnar, along with the rest of the family, live in a rickety caravan that has no insulation for warmth.

The shelters were not made to be a long-term solution, and winter was especially tough for the Al Najjar family and others like them. A storm in January 2015 came with heavy rains and low temperatures, and the rickety shelters couldn’t keep out the cold.

Mercy Corps provided gas-powered heaters to Wasfy and the other families in the temporary shelters during the worst of the storm so they could stay warm, despite their living arrangements.

The storm’s heavy rains caused further problems. “During the winter, water came in to the caravan. The sewage system overflowed,” says Wasfy. “In the winter it was so cold and in the summer it will be so hot.”

Mercy Corps also worked with a partner to create a new sewage system for the area. During the construction, it was discovered that faulty materials were used in the original system. The lack of materials available in Gaza makes any kind of construction project extremely difficult, but Mercy Corps managed to repair the system by adding new pipes.

“The sewage system repaired by Mercy Corps now works really well,” says Wasfy. “The system is now able to handle the waste water from the caravans. Thanks to Mercy Corps that problem was solved.”

With the tough winter conditions behind them, the summer heat will likely cause more problems for Wasfy and the other families living in caravans while they wait to rebuild their homes. Mercy Corps is currently working to provide some relief from the heat — the team hopes to soon be able to provide drinking water, tarps, and other household items that will help families stay safe and healthy.

Before we end our visit with the Al Najjar family, Wasfy shares his hopes for the future for both himself and for Gaza. “We are looking forward to when we can go back to work. More than anything, we need to accelerate the reconstruction of Gaza,” he says.

Beyond helping families like the Al Najjars recover from the most recent crisis, our long-term work in Gaza is focused on economic recovery and empowering youth. Through a cash-for-work program, people in Gaza can earn income by supporting farmers and fishermen who were affected by the fighting, or working in physiotherapy to help injured citizens.

We continue to provide psychosocial support for both children and adults, most of whom have suffered through several rounds of conflict in their lifetime. And to help create economic stability for young people, we offer training and mentorship to university graduates so they can gain employment in Gaza or as online freelancers.

Families like Wasfy’s have a long road ahead toward recovery. Even when people have enough money to repair their damaged homes, the restrictions on construction materials make it nearly impossible.

Unemployment is staggeringly high, and the intermittent conflict here means that families rarely have the stability of a steady job and a safe home at the same time. But Mercy Corps remains committed to helping families like the Al Najjars recover from crisis and find a new path forward.