Sarah Gillam, Media Relations Manager for HelpAge International, visited one of our projects in Gaza – a day centre in Gaza City – to see how older people are being helped 6 months after Age International and the DEC launched crisis appeals.
We pull up alongside a wall decorated with paintings of older people holding banners and calling into megaphones. We go through the gate and despite the early hour there are lots of elderly people about. Nearly twenty older men are congregating in the garden and there are about the same number inside in a meeting. We are introduced and settle down to chat outside in the garden. But it’s difficult. People are so desperate to talk.
Eventually Anwar Harar, 69, is selected to speak for all of them. A friendly man with silver grey cropped hair he tells me his story. And it’s the same tale that I’ve heard interviewing people across the Strip. They, along with 100,000 others have been bombed out of their homes. They’re living with relatives or renting apartments. They’re running out of the money UNWRA has given them for five month’s worth of rent and most have no income. Their landlords are asking them to pay up or move on.
‘I come here to forget my suffering’
They all have skills and are variously plumbers, heating engineers, teachers. Some speak good English, some do not. Many cannot read or write. Most are registered refugees. Most have lost everything. They fled homes in what they were wearing.
Anwar says, ‘This is a good place. My house was demolished. I come here to forget about my home and my suffering. I have to take fresh air, enjoy my time. They give me classes as I cannot read or write. Mrs Lena teaches me. Each Thursday she gives me a course in how to read, how to write, what the letters are, just five of us.’
An oasis in the destruction
I have to agree with him. The facilities, the house and garden seem like an oasis after zigzagging across the damaged Gaza Strip. It provides a space for older people to come together. Men and women meet on alternate days and they cater for 420 people six days a week funded by the UK’s Department for International Development, the Disaster Emergency Committee and Age International.
‘I rent a flat at the moment as my house was destroyed. I have no income, people help me. I worked for thirty years as a plumber but don’t have a job anymore.’
He says he’s covered for health insurance but has problems with high blood pressure. ‘There is someone to tell us about how to measure blood pressure and sugar levels, how to treat it and how to keep it low.’
Activities include going to the city gardens and enjoying time together. ‘There are many competitions. We come three days a week on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. And the women come on Saturdays, Mondays and Wednesdays,’ he said.
We need dignity for older people
‘We have to have a monthly pension. We want to have the things that other people in the world have. We need dignity for older people,’ he said.
‘When we came here we thought, we have our place. We are still alive. The centre provides meals, exercise equipment, literacy classes and pottery classes. We love going to the city parks. It’s a beacon of hope.’
‘But we also need medicine. They need to develop these centres to spread this work wider – there is a real need for it. Elderly people are really suffering.’
Having talked to people individually in places across the Gaza Strip, I couldn’t help but agree with him. Older people were all suffering in similar ways but some people’s isolation was more marked than others. As well as being cold, homeless, without any income and short of food, the social isolation was making them depressed and downcast.
From birthday parties to pottery making
Day centres like this across the whole of Gaza would provide a way of people coming together. One woman I’d spoken to earlier had positively lit up when she talked about coming to the centre and she yearned to come again.
The project coordinator Monzer El Masri, 26, said they had counselling sessions every week for people both individually and in groups.
‘We have a lot of social activities, such as celebrating people’s birthdays, going to parks on trips, providing hot meals.
‘We have a young volunteer who comes in and teaches us how to make pottery along with an art teacher. We’re trying to get elderly people to participate in activities.’
A committee of older people help run the centre along with HelpAge International. ‘We work with the older people to decide what activities they need and help them to make sure they happen.’
I just hope they get what they want – it seems so little that they are asking for.