In a Rafah school called ‘Hope’, Gaza IDPs seek shelter from Israel’s bombs | Israel War on Gaza

In a Rafah school called ‘Hope’, Gaza IDPs seek shelter from Israel’s bombs | Israel War on Gaza

Rafah, Gaza Strip – The rooms and corridors of Rafah’s Al-Amal Rehabilitation Society, a two-storey building in a sunny yard filled with trees, and a children’s play area off to the side, are as lively as they have ever been.

But instead of it being just the deaf students who are usually bustling around, the classrooms are occupied by families fleeing Israel’s relentless assault on the people of Gaza.

Rafah, at the southernmost tip of the Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt, now hosts some 1.5 million people displaced by the endless, indiscriminate Israeli bombing from other parts of the Gaza Strip into an area of about 63sq km (24sq miles).

The first arrivals poured into the fixed structures: homes of friends or family, abandoned buildings, and schools that were not in use because Israel’s war on Gaza had paralysed life.

Some of the schools were run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) but the agency is no longer able to fully operate them as shelters as it did several times before during previous Israeli assaults on Gaza.

Rafah is estimated to have about 15 buildings that can be used as shelters, each of which can house about 3,000 people. This makes for a total of 45,000 displaced people that the city can cope with. Today, each school building is home to up to 25,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Amal school story Gaza
The Society’s building and grounds are straining to accommodate displaced people[Courtesy Al-Amal Society]

The unprecedented influx of people prompted the independent Al-Amal Society management to open its doors to IDPs, seeing the dire need as families came to Rafah on foot, carrying, pushing, or pulling those who could not walk, holding on to whatever meagre possessions they could save.

Families like that of journalist Abdul Rahman Mahani, 24, who all live in a single room. He was displaced along with his parents, brother and two sisters, but this was not their first displacement.

They had fled the vicious bombing on their neighbourhood of Remal in the west of Gaza City to the doomed al-Shifa Hospital and finally down to Rafah.

“In the dark of night, we heard the frantic voices of neighbours yelling: ‘Evacuate! Evacuate!’” Mahani told Al Jazeera of a night when he and his family fled. “Amid the Israeli raids, we all rushed to seek refuge at al-Shifa Hospital.”

From al-Shifa they soon had to relocate, to the Nassr neighbourhood this time, and Mahani remembers making the trek with a 25kg (about 50 pounds) bag of flour on his back, a most precious commodity in Gaza.

There was no safety to be found anywhere, and after several days of moving back and forth between Nassr, al-Shifa and the area around it, the family made its way south to Khan Younis.

Abdulrahman Mehanne
Abdul Rahman Mahani came to Al-Amal after several displacements [Courtesy Abdulrahman Mehanne]

“That was the first time I saw Israeli occupation tanks, from a distance. We were walking in lines … young Palestinians were being arrested right before our eyes … it was terrifying.”

A month later, another move, then another which finally brought them to Al-Amal Society, although there is no guarantee that this would be the last time they have to pick up their lives and go.

Al-Amal, ‘hope’

The deaf children and youth who attend Al-Amal Society’s school are all from Rafah, so some were able to stay in their homes, if the homes were in one piece.

Some children had to move into the building with their families after their home was destroyed by Israeli attacks. They have hit the ground running though, acting as guides for incoming families, showing them where markets, shops, pharmacies and healthcare facilities are.

The team at Al-Amal, comprising five people including project manager Bahaa Abu Batnin, are happy to have this extra help. “The deaf students are so cheerful and they love to give.

“They found ways to communicate with the displaced, making the displaced feel like they’re at home despite the Israeli bombing and the difficulties and hardships,” Abu Batnin told Al Jazeera.

Palestinian children wait to receive food cooked by a charity kitchen amid shortages of food supplies, as the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas continues, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, March 5, 2024. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Palestinian children wait to receive food cooked by a charity kitchen amid shortages of food supplies, in Rafah on March 5, 2024 [Mohammed Salem/Reuters]

They have also drafted some displaced people to volunteer to clean or cook for the others and run recreational activities for the children.

There are now more than 600 people living at Al-Amal, some rooms crammed with more than 20 people, and the team works hard every day to try to help as many of them as possible.

Funding is an issue as they have to rely on financial or in-kind donations to support everybody, but they have resorted to solutions like bringing items in from their own homes, especially when they were scrambling for enough mattresses and blankets for all the IDPs in Gaza’s cold winter weather.

Struggling for the basics

Once those had been secured, they had to turn to other priorities, with which they also struggled.

With regards to food, the team is only able to provide enough to give each displaced person just one small meal a day.

In addition to that, the Gaza-wide potable water crisis means they can only secure the equivalent of five cups of water a week per person.

Another priority the team works hard to provide is the “dignity bags” of sanitary pads, painkillers and other supplies that they offer to all the displaced women and girls.

Baha al-Batnin Amal school story
Baha al-Batnin [Courtesy of Baha al-Batnin]

To a certain extent, helping displaced people has become a personal mission for Abu Batnin and the team, and they do not want to give up on any aspect.

“We primarily care for displaced children and women, so our priorities were decided accordingly,” Abu Batnin said.

Hala, a mother of three, is grateful that the dignity bags made it onto the priority list.

“They’re so necessary, we can’t find these things in the markets at all right now,” she told Al Jazeera.

Hala, her husband and their two sons and daughter were displaced from Tal al-Hawa, west of Gaza City, on October 13. Initially, they sought refuge in their second home in az-Zahra for about five days but the Israeli bombs got there too.

They managed to get one room in Al-Amal, which is better than nothing, despite the discomfort of being crammed in a tiny room and having to share one bathroom with five other families.

But, she says: “I don’t feel safe. The constant sounds of Israeli bombings just increase the sense of danger.”

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