18 January 2008
'Spinach soup, with half a chicken and chicken granules from the market', said Mrs Leila.
I had asked her what she would be feeding her 13 children tonight. We were a short walk from the As Shatti or Beach refugee camp home in Gaza city where, she has lived with her children since she lost her husband four years ago. It's Tuesday, distribution day for the 136 families who receive a weekly food basket from the voucher scheme that Oxfam runs with local partner Ma'an funded by Oxfam International.
Piles of bright red tomatoes, dark purple aubergines, crisp green cucumbers, sweet yellow onions and cream skinned potatoes have been packed with the dark green spinach into plastic bags, vegetable loads weighing more than 20 kilos per family. Each week there is a different variety of locally grown vegetables and fruit together with a chicken and thirty eggs. It makes a big package to carry home, big until you realise that this has to last a family of between seven and fourteen people for a whole week. Most of the families also get rations of oil and flour or rice every three months from the United Nations.
The families of the Beach (As Shatti) camp tell me that the voucher scheme is good. People say that they like the way they are asked what they would like to get next week - cauliflowers are particularly popular.
What is less popular is that dependency has become the norm for people in Gaza. Eight out of ten of the one and a half million people trapped in this highly populated strip of land rely on aid for their basic food needs.
Since Hamas took over Gaza in June last year (2007), Israel as sealed all the border crossings into Gaza and prevents all imports and exports except very basic humanitarian supplies. This has smothered industry, closing almost all the factories and construction sites in a matter of weeks, putting 70,000 people out of work and plunging half a million family members into poverty and aid dependency.
Farmers have fared little better - denied the imports of seeds, fertilisers, greenhouse plastic sheeting and pesticides they need to keep their small plots of land productive, they have also seen the bottom drop out of their market. The local market stalls in the streets of Gaza City, Khan Younis, Rafah and Deir Al Balah are flooded with food grown for export. Peppers and cucumbers, strawberries and grapes are consequently sold at below the cost of production. Farmers are making a loss just to recover some of the cash they have spent, tomatoes that cost 15p a kilo to grow sell for just 12p a kilo.
Mrs Leila tells me she would rather have a job than a hand out and insists on giving me her phone number, just in case.
I'm here in Gaza to see where the Oxfam and Ma'an partnership comes in. 32 small farmers have a contract for three months that guarantees sale of some of their produce at a price just above the cost of production. The food that Ma'an Development centre buys from farmers will be given to families in exchange for a voucher, which has been given to the most vulnerable families.
The Sultan brothers who grow aubergines on land the Israeli army used to regularly destroy because it was close to the settlements tell me it isn't much extra money but it makes all the difference.
Further down the road on his tidy small holding, Amer, his brother and his four school age sons grow cauliflowers, tomatoes and onions, watering the two acres carefully every day and continually weeding the neat rows. Through Oxfam's project they earn 250 shekels a week, money that helps keep the family of 12 and buy school clothes and bags.
Back in Gaza City I visit the other part of the voucher scheme, a sewing workshop where 20 seamstresses and tailors make children's clothes for distribution to the Beach Camp families and children in local schools. The jobs are another part of the voucher scheme; each one provides hope, dignity and a little money. Najwa explains shyly that this is the first job in which she has used her sewing skills learned nearly ten years ago on a United Nations training scheme. Her three young children are being looked after by her mother in law, her husband has been out of work since his construction job stopped in July so her small income is all they have to live on.
Sharif who expertly sews a hem as he talks, used to do similar work in a private textile factory before that closed in July. The three eldest of his five children go to school that costs him 15 shekels a day for books and other school expenses. Without this job he would be like Abu Nimer, a fisherman father neighbour with whom I sit looking out at the exhausted sea as he tells me quietly that he can only dream of buying his children the new school clothes and books they need.
All over Gaza ordinary people are doing extraordinary things as they keep their lives going from day to day. Oxfam is using emergency funds to carry on the voucher scheme while we approach international donors to fund its enlargement. Even so, this is a sticking plaster when the real cure is to allow the gates to Gaza to be opened again, to let the people of Gaza breathe and restart their economy, to let them rejoin the world.