We tell our children that schools are places where they can make their hopes and dreams come true. But today in Gaza, schools have become places of desperation - a last resort for sheltering families who have nowhere else to go.
Three weeks ago, Najah Abu Ouda and her children fled the constant bombing and sought refuge at a school in Beit Lahia, in the north of the Gaza Strip. During a brief 72-hour ceasefire, they ventured out to see what was left of their home. “It was in rubble, totally destroyed. My children came back to the school completely broken,” Najah says.
The school, built for 250 students, is now home to 4,000 people who sleep wherever they can find space: in classrooms, in the corridors, and outside in the yard. There’s been no electricity for days so pumps stopped working and raw sewage pours onto the floor. Garbage piles up by the entrance. There’s little food and water— nowhere near enough for so many people. In conditions like this, illnesses spread quickly.
A long queue stretches around the building. In it, dozens of mothers, fathers, and children wait for treatment at a mobile health clinic supported by Oxfam and run by the Palestinian Medical Relief Society (PMRS).
“Today, in just four hours at this one school, we received 171 cases,” says Dr. Ihab Dabour, who runs the mobile clinic with a nurse and two volunteers, travelling between the schools to provide basic health care. “105 of the cases were children - most suffering from diarrhoea, fever, and flu. I found two cases of meningitis and immediately transferred them to hospital.”
Dr. Ihab has experienced first-hand what his patients are going through. "When the ground operation started, the roads were cut off and I was trapped in my house for days before I managed to flee with my family," he says.
“That was the most difficult time for me. I knew that there were so many people who needed healthcare and I was supposed to be there helping them, but I was trapped. After days of bombing, I decided I must take the risk and help people in the school shelters. As I moved between them, a bomb exploded near me and my car was hit by shrapnel. I still cannot believe that I survived."
For the families sheltering in the schools, the work of Dr. Ihab and the mobile clinic is a vital lifeline. Many have lost everything they owned. Even if there is a lasting ceasefire, many, like Najah and her family, will have no homes left to return to.
"We've been sheltering in this school for three weeks now,” Najah says.“70 people sleep in one classroom and the situation is awful. My children have not stopped feeling sick. My little son has been treated twice for severe diarrhoea and fever. I am so worried about them, but I'm relieved we have the medical staff. At least I know that they will try to save my children’s lives if they feel sick again."
Arwa Mhanna is Oxfam's Media and Communications Officer in Gaza.