Gaza orphans, widows, single mothers find solace in special camp

On the northern edges of chaotic Rafah, where a weeks-long Israeli ground operation drove more than 500,000 people to scurry for their lives, and right before the city merges into war-wrecked Khan Younis to which many are fleeing, Taghreed alMabhouh moves about her displacement tent with ease, in a camp dedicated for divorced women like herself, or widowed and single mothers and their families. 

She feels safe here, she tells The New Arab, or safer at least than other locations she had had to shelter in with her seven children since the war broke out eight months ago, and forced her to leave her home in Gaza City in November.

“Here, I’m not the only woman without a male head for the family. I’m among other women, who like me, are alone tending to their children amidst this devastation,” said the divorcee.

In Gaza, men assume the role of their families’ breadwinners. Israel’s years-long Israeli blockade made job opportunities scarce in the enclave, and pre-war unemployment rates stood at 45 percent — the highest in the world.

This, along with the conservative norms and laws governing the society, kept most women from competing in the labour market, making room for male guardians fending for them, and becoming fully dependent on their spouses. 

For 14 years, 47-year-old Taghreed had been divorced, her marital status had weighed heavily on her as she navigated social restrictions and reservations.

“While fathers of other families went out bringing their families’ essentials and exchanging tips and advice on where to seek them, I couldn’t do the same and didn’t know where to begin”

Relying on support from various institutions before the war, she made it by and managed to take care of her kids who range in age from 25 to 15 years old.

But amidst the war, where basic survival essentials like finding clean water, shelter, and food are luxuries that require scavenging for, the past eight months have been exceptionally difficult.  

“My daily struggles as a divorced woman, without a male backbone, have been multiple and manifold. While fathers of other families went out bringing their families’ essentials and exchanging tips and advice on where to seek them, I couldn’t do the same and didn’t know where to begin,” explained Taghreed.

“Travelling and moving around the Strip in search of essentials wasn’t easy because of how society regards women. I’m so relieved to have found this place,” she said, as she lined up canned food she had received as donations, on one side of the tent.

The Al-Farouk Camp for Orphans, Widows and Divorcees ensures no trespassers violate the privacy of the camp [Mohamed Solaimane]

Surrounded by barbed wire, especially on the side overlooking the road, the Al-Farouk Camp for Orphans, Widows and Divorcees’ setup and location ensures no trespassers or unwanted visitors violate the privacy of the camp and its inhabitants amidst the absence of any security measures or forces. 

“I’m not worried about my four daughters here,” added Taghreed.

‘It was an urgent need’

According to the Al-Farouk Camp manager, Ibrahim Meshawekh, setting up this camp was “an apparent and urgent need.”

“Having been involved in humanitarian work since the work broke out, and interacting firsthand with mothers who were on their own taking care of their families, many said they needed to be brought together in such a shelter where some of their families’ essentials are met, and where they feel safer. It was an obvious and urgent need,” Ibrahim told The New Arab.

“The camp can host 200 more families, and we’re working on making that happen, along with financial support to orphans, widows and divorcees”

Starting with his own little money and that of a friend, they began setting up this camp, reaching out to his database of local and international donors with whom he had solid contacts, and who rushed to contribute to the services and support this camp offers to hundreds of women and orphaned children.

“Around 144 families are sheltered in the camp so far, mostly living in their tents with their privacy secured and offered clean water, as well as free food prepared in the camp’s kitchen that also serves other nearby camps. This is in addition to an almost-weekly distribution of food baskets to all tents, and clothes,” explained Ibrahim.

Such services and supplies, Taghreed and other residents say, are priceless. Many of the currently displaced 1.7 million people in Gaza struggle to access such basic needs.

Such essentials, Gazans say, have become even more difficult to find now as Israel’s ground operations in eastern Rafah blocked the border crossing through which most of the humanitarian aid has been trickling through, to the population of around 2.3 million people. 

According to UN figures, only six truckloads of humanitarian aid supplies have accessed the besieged Strip since May 10 through Rafah and Ker Shalom border crossings, down from 758 and 1,512 truckloads in the two weeks earlier, respectively.

Before the war broke out, an average of 500 truckloads accessed the strip per day, including fuel.

“In terms of capacity, the camp can host 200 more families, and we’re working on making that happen, along with financial support to orphans, widows and divorcees,” he explained.

“Beneficiaries from Palestine, Jordan, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Holland, the US, and Kuwait — who make up the bigger contributors — are keen on providing as much support as possible to the families in the camp,” said Ibrahim, explaining how the funding for the different wells was offered through donations until they got to provide enough clean water. 

“More than 3,000 women have lost their husbands in Israel’s bombings and raids”

High demand

According to Ibrahim, requests from other families to join the camp come in droves daily, but there are no tents available to take in more families. 

More than 3,000 women have lost their husbands in Israel’s bombings and raids which have almost not stopped since October 7, while more than 10,000 children have been orphaned, UN figures show.

Hend Abu Ouda is one of these women. A mother of five daughters and two sons, she lost her husband to an Israeli raid on their house in February while she and the daughters were in one of five displacement locations they were forced to seek since they left their home in Beit Hanoun on October 8. 

“Here, it’s safer and some of our basic needs are met, but the supplies are much less than what the families need,” the 44-year-old widow said.

Made to share her tent with another widow and her children, Hend complained of the lack of space and privacy and wished her divorced daughter and grandchildren, who live in another camp in Rafah, would have been taken in the camp.

“We’re grateful for everything, from clean water to the shelter. But we just hoped for more,” she says. 

Looming threat

As Taghreed opens the doors of her tent to allow in a breeze that she hoped would bring down the heat building up inside it,  she said she lives in constant fear of Israeli raids getting closer to their camp.

“This location is now designated a safe one, but no one knows if it will remain as such, and whether we would be forced to flee this or not,” she said in helplessness.

Having been the first family to move into the camp nearly two months ago, she’s worried “it won’t last”.

Asmaa ElSherif, supervisor at the camp, said the Israeli incursion is indeed affecting access to humanitarian supplies to offer the inhabitants.

“Prices are continuously rising and supplies are dwindling and it’ll keep getting worse if the crossing remains shut,” she said, adding that families in the camp are increasingly worried about the prospect of coming under attack.

“We’ve all become like one big family here. We serve each other and all chip in to make each other comfortable. This camp is a solace to many and hence, there’s serious dread it will be taken away,” she concluded. 

Mohamed Solaimane is a Gaza-based journalist with bylines in regional and international outlets, focusing on humanitarian and environmental issues

This piece was published in collaboration with Egab

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