Life in the Gaza Strip: “No child should witness this”


1st Jan 2015 Life

Life in the Gaza Strip: “No child should witness this”

A former “adrenaline junkie” from Kent, Sam Wood swapped boxing for saving lives in the Gaza Strip. Journalist Craig Stennett pays him a visit and discovers the reality of life in the Gaza Strip.

“It should only cost you three shekels, Sam. don’t pay any more than that.” Osama Damo, the communications manager for Save the Children in Gaza, is shouting into his mobile. He’s advising his new boss Sam Wood on the taxi ride for the last leg of his journey, crossing the Palestinian Authority checkpoint and onto the Hamas frontier control for the final entrance into the Gaza Strip.

Born and brought up in Tunbridge Wells, Sam Wood is Save the Children’s new director of programme operations for the occupied Palestinian territory. He’s tasked with administering an annual £10m aid budget and ensuring a smooth run for the many projects this British-inaugurated charity has in operation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

At 34, Sam cuts a calm and assured presence. He already has an impressive portfolio from over a decade of previous postings with Save the Children and other international aid organisations. Major trouble spots such as Yemen, South Sudan and Syria—to name just a few—are under his belt, making him no stranger to the world’s more exotic locations.

Sam identifies his background as an amateur boxer as a good foundation for the demanding life he’s chosen. “I was a keen boxer from 15 onwards, and I’ve always felt that it instilled in me the values of discipline, application and hard work.

“There are times in my job when you almost have no energy left, mentally or physically, but you have to keep going and push on through to the end. Boxing taught me that, even when you feel you have nothing left to give, you have to dig deeper to accomplish things.”

On this whirlwind two-day visit to the Gaza Strip, Sam will need to remember all these early lessons in life in order to hit the ground running. Osama briefly updates him as they settle into their car seats.

Sam Wood inspects damage to Right to Live's school
Sam Wood inspects the surveys Right to Live's destroyed classroom

“It’s Right to Live first, Sam. It’s a day centre for Down’s syndrome children in Gaza, which was hit in the last war. Then we’ll visit the community offices for psychological and social support for mothers and children suffering from trauma in East Jabalya. They’re both our partner organisations here in Gaza, and we have aid programmes running with them. Then we need to do a tour of Shujaia [the most heavily bombed area during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge last year]. You really need to see the place, Sam.”

This is just the morning’s itinerary, and it’s already past 9.30am.

Driving off from Erez, they take the Eastern Road skirting around the boundaries of Gaza City to their west. Entering the compound of the Right to Live association, they are greeted by Ahmad al Helou, manager of the day centre. He shows Sam the bomb damage their building received from last year’s conflict in Gaza, and updates him on how the organisation—which is receiving aid for a medical laboratory within its grounds—is coping. 

“Has it been screened?” asks Sam as he enters a shattered classroom and makes his way through the debris. His question refers to the UN Mine Action Service, which is tasked with checking bombed buildings to ensure that no unexploded ordnance remains. If they have given the place the “all clear”, it’ll be safe for him to enter.

“It’s clear, Sam,” Osama reassuringly replies. A few solemn minutes pass as Sam makes his way through the upper levels of the site, silently soaking in the extent of the destruction. He passes kitchens, classrooms and a library that have been extensively damaged, toys and books still littering the floor.

Raja Abu Shammalla leads counselling sessions designed to counter psychological problems resulting from life in the Gaza Strip;
Raja Abu
Shammalla leads counselling sessions designed to counter psychological problems resulting from life in the Gaza Strip

The day centre, giving educational and physiotherapeutic support to 400 children and 100 young adults with Down’s syndrome, has managed to get back on its feet swiftly. Director Ahmad al Helou says that the students and staff themselves undertook reconstruction work on the lower levels, with materials they had to hand.

The mood begins to lighten as they make their way to the temporary classrooms and enter a physio room. Here, two-and-a-half-year-old toddler Arwa Nairab is making great progress from crawling to walking, being encouraged by the staff. Sam exchanges several questions with them. One symptom of Down’s syndrome is that the usual developmental milestones are delayed, so he’s visibly touched by the young girl’s efforts to walk and her tenacity.

Leaving Right to Live, Sam and Osama travel to Eastern Shujaia to visit the Takween Community Organisation with its programme workshops of Life and Hope, helping mothers and children deal with the trauma produced by 51 days of round-the-clock bombing. Coping skills are also taught to alleviate the general stress of family life under conditions of only four to six hours of electricity a day and unsanitary or non-existent water supplies. Living under an ongoing blockade—imposed on the Gaza Strip in 2007—further ratchets up the psychological pressure on individuals and families.

Sam is greeted by Palestinian children as he enters a community centre
Sam is greeted by Palestinian children as he enters a community centre

Pierre Krahenbuhl, commissioner-general for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine, aptly describes the situation on the ground in Gaza:

“Hundreds of thousands of children are deep in trauma. We estimate that, of the 3,000 children injured, 1,000 will have disabilities for life.”

He goes on to say that the level of destruction was “unprecedented in the agency’s 64-year history in Gaza”.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs published a report covering the period from late August through to September 4 last year. It further explains the difficulties on the ground and highlights the problem caused by these hostilities: “[We estimate] around 108,000 Palestinians lost their homes or had them severely damaged. Only ten per cent of Gaza’s population gets water once a day. Electricity is spotty at best. Eighteen-hour outages continue in most areas.” 

Endeavouring to be an antidote to some of Gaza’s problems is Raja Abu Shammalla, a young Palestinian whose husband was killed during the bombing. She’s one of a handful of trained counselling staff, supported by Save the Children, who organise workshops to overcome conflict-induced psychological problems.

Role playing sometimes helps with troubled situations. Balloons are blown up until they pop, as a symbolic way of releasing anger and tension. The popping brings a discernable change of atmosphere in the room, and laughter spreads among the group of women as the balloons start to burst. The sessions in the community building are split between children and mothers, modifying the treatment for each separate group.

After farewells to the staff, Sam and Osama drive through the remains of Shujaia. This town has the unenviable distinction of being the hardest hit area in the Gaza Strip during last year’s hostilities.

“You can’t find a building, wall or door without some kind of bullet, shrapnel or hole in it,” says Sam, while Osama adds, “No child should be born to witness this.”

They pull up at an intersection between collapsed residential buildings and are greeted by 65-year-old Salem Ejah. A native of Shujaia, he now lives in a tiny shack made of wood and corrugated iron opposite where his house once stood. Sam surveys the destruction and conveys his sympathy for Salem’s situation.

Local Salem Ejah outside  his dilapidated shack in Shujaiya
Local Salem Ejah outside his dilapidated shack in Shujaia

The programmes Save the Children have running in Shujaia are concerned mainly with drinking-water distribution and the delivery of desalination units to Kinder Gardens. But the much-needed rebuilding of the destroyed area is on hold, as very limited quantities of reconstruction materials are being allowed into the Strip at present. The residents must just wait and hope the situation changes.

Later in the day, over lunch at the Palmeera restaurant on Wahda Street in Gaza City, Sam discusses his life as an international aid worker in more depth. Being married for three years to Alison, a fellow aid worker he met in South Sudan, has been a definite advantage for his chosen career.

“Having a wife that works in the same sector is a plus, especially with all the travelling I’ve had to do,” Sam admits. “It would be very difficult for anyone else outside of aid work to be so understanding.”

The position he holds for Save the Children in Ramallah is described by the organisation as a “family posting”. According to Sam, Ramallah is “one of the most stable areas in the occupied Palestinian territory”. This is important, as Sam and his wife have just had a new addition to their family—Maya, an 11-week-old baby girl.

Sam looks over the most heavily bombed district in Gaza
Sam looks over the most heavily bombed district in Gaza

Marriage and fatherhood have certainly mellowed Sam’s high-octane lifestyle. “When I was in my twenties, I worked as a trekking guide in various mountain regions. In my holidays, I travelled twice alone through the frontier tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. I’d drink tea with local Pashtun tribesmen; the last time they’d had an Englishman among them was during the First Anglo-Afghan war of 1839, when we had canons pulled by Indian elephants.

“I think I was a bit of an adrenaline junkie back then. But during my travels and work, I’ve seen a lot of poverty and hardship. You can look in resignation at what’s happening, or it can spur you to make a change for the better.”

The challenges Save the Children and its staff face can seem overwhelming to an outsider. In 2013, the organisation estimates it helped 15.4 million children around the world, dealing with circumstances such as war zones, famine and natural disasters. When I ask about the dangers, Sam pauses before giving a considered reply.

“I’m told that the leading cause of injury or death to aid workers is road traffic accidents. It’s not kidnapping, beheading or being shot, as many might assume. I like to keep this in mind when I’m out in the field.” 

All images copyright Craig Stennett