Gaza’s Lost Childhoods
Every day, dozens of children are seen on Gaza streets selling cigarettes, biscuits and mints in order to help their struggling families.
Mohammed Selmi, 12, rushes from school to his home, takes a quick meal before rushing back to the street, this time with a box filled with thermos he peddles on the street of Gaza city for the rest of the day.
“I have to exploit every minute in order to help my family,” Mohammed told IslamOnline.net, as he roams the crowd Gaza street with his thermos box.
This has been the everyday schedule for the Gazan child, except in the summer holiday, when he is more out in the streets to bring few shekels to his family. Sometimes, Mohammed is accompanied by his younger brother, Sami.
“I work with my brother to gain 5 to 6 shekels a day.”
Mohammed admits that he sometimes he wishes to have more fun during the vacations, but he knows well this option is not available.
“We are 9 brothers and sisters and our unemployed father won’t be able to afford the school kits at the beginning of the school year,” he says.
Mohammed and his brother are not out there alone.
Dozens of children are seen on Gaza streets selling cigarettes, biscuits and mints.
In a nearby neighborhood, lives Said Yassin. The 11-year-old spends his day collecting plastic wastes and rubbish bins from the streets in order to sell them at the day in exchange for 3-4 shekels.
Not far from Said, Ahmed, 14, has been working on the streets for two years now, selling tea to drivers and pedestrians.
“This has been my work for the past two years,” he says.
“I started to work in order to pay for the family living as my father is dead and my mother suffers from a chronic disease.
“We are four orphans and three of us already work.”
Palestinian labor law bans children under the age of 15 from working.
“According to the Palestinian law, children from 15 to 18 can’t work except under strict conditions that guarantee their dignity and freedom,” Ahmed al-Kord, Labour and Social Affairs minister in Gaza, told IOL.
“Children under 15 mustn’t work under any condition.”
However, a recent report by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), showed that seven percent of children in the Palestinian territories, where 52 per cent of the population are under the age of 18, are now working.
“This phenomenon has increased because of the widespread unemployment among Gaza fathers,” Makadmi said. At the main gate of the Telecommunication Company building in Gaza City, little Sobheyya, 5, and her sister Alaa, 4, are setting on the side of the road.
Sobheyya puts in her lap a box filled with mints, while Alaa’s box has biscuits.
They ask every person entering to the building to buy whether mints or biscuits. Sometimes, people buy and sometimes not.
“We have to work because our father is unemployed and suffers from a chronic disease,” the tiny sisters say in a shy voice.
Abed Yasin, the father of two girls, says he has no other choice but to let them work to help his family survive.
“They must work to afford money for their school expenses and also to help me with the expenses of their seven brothers and sisters.”
Selmi, the father of Mohamed the thermos seller, also says he can’t help not to send his child out to work.
“We are poor and there are no working opportunities today,” he says bitterly.
“I find myself obliged to push my children to work in order to help the family.”
Experts and social workers say that with the harsh conditions of life in Gaza, where 70 per cent of people living below the poverty line, children are obliged to take on the role of provider for their struggling families.
“This phenomenon has increased these days because of the widespread unemployment among Gaza fathers who spend most of their times at home,” Na’el al-Makadmi, director of Al-Rabeea juvenile detention center in Gaza.
Zekra Ajjour, from Al-Dameer Human Rights Association in Gaza, agrees that the worsened economic situation in the sealed-off territory is a main factor.
“The economic situation has a big role in the increase of this phenomenon.
“The occupation’s oppressive siege is the core of the problem,” Ajjour affirms.
Israel has been closing Gaza Strip’s exits to the outside world since Hamas took control of the territory in June 2007.
This coincides with a continued US-led Western economic boycott since Palestinians elected Hamas to power in the 2006 elections.
For Selmi, Mohammed’s father, he prays everyday to find a job that helps him provide for his family and gives his kids the chance to enjoy their childhood.
“We live in hard and exceptional times,” he says with his voice full of sorrow.
“I hope to see my children enjoy their holiday, but there is nothing that I can do.”
* By Motasem Dalloul, IOL Correspondent