Sunday, October 23, 2005

More Onions than Honey

This article by Mohammed appeared in Morgenbladet (in Norwegian)21 Oct 2005

"One day honey, one day onion," so goes a famous udanese proverb. A succinct summary of the uncertainties of life, it means that there can be days
filed with the honey of health, joy, and peace, but a day later, the raw-onion bitterness of adversity can afflict anyone. For most people in the Occupied Gaza
Strip, the "onions" of poverty and danger have become everyday fare that the recent unilateral Israeli disengagement has done little to improve.

In a life marked by obstacles circumvented and tragic losses overcome, 39-year-old Ayman Ghannam and his
family lost their youngest child, 8-month-old Mojahed,
just two weeks ago. In a roundabout way, the baby's
death was yet another grim legacy of decades of
Occupation. Like thousands of family men in Gaza,
Ghannam lost his livelihood—a once-thriving cell-phone
business—in the wholesale destruction of Gaza's
economy that accompanied the Intifada. Ghannam, his
wife Halima, and their children joined the 60% of
Palestinian families who live below the poverty line,
sliding painfully from difficulty to deprivation to
outright destitution. Last year, however, Ghannam was
able to borrow US$3700 and rented a small snack-shop
plus living quarters inside the compound of an UNRWA
elementary school for girls. Working together,
Ghannam and his wife could support their family. The
single room attached to the shop was crowded for a
family of seven, but a vast improvement over
homelessness.

True, everything was a bit rundown, but during the
last five years of crisis, UNRWA has been increasingly
underfunded, even as the need for their relief work
has grown exponentially. Ghannam's big worry was the
heavy, ill-fitting window that covered the sales
counter. Some mornings, it was so badly stuck that it
took his wife ten minutes to maneuver it up and open
for business. And they worked all day with a wary eye
on the ill-hung window—what if it slammed down on one
of the little girls waiting to be served? Several
times, Ghannam brought his concerns to UNRWA
headquarters: couldn't this safety hazard be
remedied? Sometimes he got no response; other times
he got vague assurances that "it would be looked
into."

"I want to smash something inside myself"

The bureaucracy moved too slowly to prevent tragedy.
Two weeks ago, Ghannam was at the market while Halima
got their four older children off to school, then took
8-month-old Mojahed with her into the shop and started
her daily struggle with the window. She let the baby
crawl on the floor –well out of the way, she
thought—but when the heavy window crashed to the
ground, little Mojahed was right under it. The edge
inflicted a massive head injury, crushing his skull
and causing severe bleeding.

In the market, Ghannam heard his wife's screams, but
only one word was clear—"The baby!" He raced back to
their shop, but the ambulance had already left.
Ghannam followed to the hospital, where he learned his
son was dead. Halima Ghannam explains what happened
that terrible morning, first with numb shock. But
soon, she has to take off her glasses to wipe away
tears. 'The pain," she weeps, "sometimes I want to
smash something inside myself. I cannot face myself—I
feel guilty of my son's blood."

Ghannam tries in vain to comfort his wife. "We
learned from people at the school this window has been
a problem for years," he explained. "Now, even when
our child has been killed, it still hasn't been
fixed—will they wait for another child to get killed
or maimed?"

"Happy in spite of everything"

Mojahed's needless death is the most bitter blow
Ghannam has suffered in his 39 years, but far from his
first brush with adversity. Orphaned in his early
teens, he got a permit to commute daily to Israel to
work as an agricultural laborer. He had always hoped
to go to university, but, he says with a wry chuckle,
"when my parents died, money for tuition was as far
out of my reach as the moon." Still, he worked,
saved, eventually married and had a family. A happy
life in many ways, he insists. Despite his injuries
when he was shot by the Israeli Army in 1989 during
his normal commute. The bullets that hit his right
hand and leg were plastic, but the damage was
permanent and plagues him to this day.

The injury ended his work as a day-laborer, but "I
insisted on moving forward in life," he says. He
contacted an Israeli telecommunications firm and
arranged with them to open the first mobile-phone
retail outlet in the Gaza Strip. Eventually,
"Talkman" was drawing customers from all over Gaza to
its Salah-ah-Deen Street shop in Rafah, and was soon a
Gaza Strip institution. Ghannam and his wife
prospered, and celebrated the birth of their first
child, Aya'a, in 1995, and the three more that soon
followed.

Affluence, however, is no protection against an
occupying army, as Ghannam discovered when his
younger brother, a university student, was arrested by
the Israelis early in 2000. The young man's "crime"
was carrying a camera, and Ghannam spent tens of
thousands of shekels on his lengthy, but finally
successful, legal defense. Soon after his brother's
release, the al Aqsa Intifada erupted, and
Salah-ah-Deen Street was suddenly named the "death
street." Hundreds of businesses, small facories, and
shops in the area were shelled daily, and even the
most loyal customers weren't about to risk their lives
to visit Ayman Ghannam's shop. Indeed, before long,
it was too dangerous for Ghannam himself to open his
store. Bit by painful bit, he sank into what he
calls the "mud of debts," and one of Gaza's most
famous businessmen was scrambling to find food for his
wife and children. He never dodged his creditors, but
all he could tell them was "I have no money." His
landlord went unpaid for six months before evicting
them, but eventually the Ghannam's were homeless. "If
I were alone," said Ghannam, "I could have handled
sleeping in the street. But I had to give my wife and
children something better."

Denied for security reasons. . .

And he did find that "something better," he thought,
in the UNRWA snack-shop—the chance to start over that
instead, took his youngest child's life. Although he
has moments when he is overwhelmed by grief, he and
Halima have four other children who deserve a decent
future. "They're the only blessings in my life,"
Ayman says, and their father seems determined to make
sure they have the education that he was denied. All
are doing well in school, and Aya'a, 10, and her
younger brother Osama are at the top of their
respective classes. While Ghannam is still trying to
get UNRWA to make the snack-shop safe, just last
Tuesday he tried to travel into Israel to file his
application for a permit to seek work in Israel. He
was denied entry by the Israeli Army "for security
reasons." Even if this resourceful man eventually
finds new employment, he and his family, and hundreds
of thousands just like them, will still be imprisoned
behind Gaza's red line of poverty, and living every
day with the losses inflicted by the Occupation.

4 Comments:

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