In the central Gaza Strip area of Deir al Balah, Usama Abu Safer, 30, devotes his time to working with disabled people. Born paraplegic, Abu Safer’s own disability inspired him to dedicate his life to this work. “I was born disabled but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel like I’m missing something,” he explained. “This is my basic motivation to live and to help other people who have a similar condition.”
Usama Abu Safer divides his time between the Deir al Balah Rehabilitation Center and Al Forsan local radio. Established in 1998, The Deir al Balah Rehabilitation Center employs all disabled people, and has a physical therapy department, a rehabilitation center for the deaf, a school for the blind, a center for disabled children and a neuropathy department. In 2007, after a sharp rise in the number of disabilities resulting from the Second Intifada, Al Forsan radio was launched, which is concerned specifically with disabled peoples’ issues.
I met Usama Abu Safer during the final days of Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s 51-day assault that killed 2,168 Palestinians and injured nearly 11,000. Frequent Israeli violence has raised the rate of disability among more than 1.8 million Palestinians living in Gaza to an astonishing 7.5%. According to the Deir al Balah Rehabilitation Center, 3,000 of the injured in Operation Protective Edge now have permanent physical disabilities, most of which are paraplegia and amputations. Many more suffered permanent hearing loss resulting from explosions.
I sat with Abu Safer in his front yard under fruit trees and he described his work. After our meeting, he would attend a funeral for cousins who had been killed in their home by an F16 attack that morning.
Accompanied by Abu Safer, I visited an UNRWA school in Deir al Balah where hundreds of Palestinians who had been displaced by Israeli attacks had fled to. Many of the families had their home destroyed, leaving them permanently displaced.
With forty people living in each classroom, the UNRWA school was overcrowded and teetering on the brink of a health epidemic. Men and women laid on the ground outside, occasionally shifting positions to chase shade throughout the day. Hundreds of children played on the concrete ground level and ran up and down the stairs.
We stood inside a classroom where I met two mothers and their disabled sons whom Usama Abu Safer worked with. As we waited to sit down, Abu Safer’s colleague scrolled through graphic photos of a drone strike that had targeted two boys the day before as they passed by the school.
I sat down with Fida Abu Maghseeb, whose son Mohammed, 8, is one of the disabled children Usama Abu Safer works with. “Throughout the war, Mohammed slept with his hands over his ears because he was scared of the bombing,” his mother told me. Mohammed was initially shy, though he responded to Usama Abu Safer’s words with a reluctant smile.
No doctor in Gaza has been able to diagnose Mohammed’s condition, though he is impacted both mentally and physically. “He had a CT scan and everything looked normal,” his mother explained. “Every doctor diagnosed him with a different condition and no one was able to tell me what exactly is wrong. He is really smart and he asks questions about everything but he has a hard time with numbers and letters.”
Two days before the ground invasion, Mohammed’s mother, Fida Abu Maghseeb, took him and his younger brother to another family member’s home. She told me that her parents’ house was occupied by Israeli soldiers for nearly a week during the ground invasion and later destroyed.
For years, Mohammed’s mother had resisted buying a wheelchair for her son. “I used to cry when I see him because there’s nothing I can do, but lately I try to cope with the situation and his condition. I agreed that I would get him a wheelchair, but before that I didn’t want to bring him a wheelchair so he wouldn’t feel like he is missing out on something,” she said.
After surveying the UNRWA schools, the Deir al Balah Rehabilitation Center for the Disabled delivered a wheelchair. Despite the dire situation, the wheelchair has provided Fida Abu Maghseeb some optimism for her son’s future. “I’m hoping that with this wheelchair he will be able to go to school because he needs education. There is an UNRWA school near my house so he can go there using the wheelchair without a taxi.”
Mohammed’s newfound mobility has impacted his well-being, his mother told me: “Mohammed is happy now that he has a wheelchair because he can go downstairs to play with the kids in the schoolyard. Because of that, his spirits are high, especially because he is able to go to school.”
Sabrine Abu Muhareb and her son Omar, 8, live in the same classroom as Fida and Mohammed Abu Maghseeb. Despite wretched living conditions, Omar had an infectious energy. He was born with a congenital defect in his spine and had surgeries on his second and third days of life. Paralyzed from the waist down, Omar needs diapers and requires constant attention.
As she began to sob, Sabrine Abu Muhareb recounted a harrowing story of survival. Their home in the al-Salla area of Deir al Balah was hit hard by tank shelling so she and Omar fled to her family’s house. Forced the leave Omar’s wheelchair at the home when they evacuated, he lost any ability to care for himself and became completely dependent on his mother. They had to evacuate their family’s house which was later destroyed by F16s. “None of my immediate family members were killed but many of our cousins died,” she told me.
With their home destroyed, Sabrine and Omar Abu Muhareb now live in the Deir al Balah UNRWA school and have no home to return to. “The health conditions are really poor and it’s hard to bathe Omar,” she said. “I have to carry water to the room. Many children have skin diseases because of the health situation. I don’t know what will happen if we have to stay longer in the schools.”
Without a wheelchair, Omar refused to leave the room and he was scared that his clothes would get dirty. His immobility only compounded the anguish from the traumatic evacuations. After a week in the UNRWA school, Usama Abu Safer and the Deir al Balah Rehabilitation Center for the Disabled provided a wheelchair for Omar as well as diapers. “After having the wheelchair, he got better psychologically and his spirits were lifted,” Sabrine Abu Muhareb said. “He can go outside, see people and play with children his own age.”
More than anything, Omar loves to paint. His artwork is on display on the chalkboard at the front of the crowded classroom his mother and 38 others live in. “Painting is really important for Omar because it’s an outlet for his emotions and the things he can not talk about,” Sabrine Abu Muhareb explained. “He painted a picture of a key and told us, ‘I want to be able to lock my own house.’”
Despite dire conditions, Usama Abu Safer and his colleagues’ work at the Deir al Balah Rehabilitation Center have provided much-needed relief to those who are least able to cope with the hardships wrought on Gaza by Israel.
According to Khaled Abu She’ab, who serves as Director of the Deir al Balah Rehabilitation Center as well chairman of a coordinating committee for eight refugee camps throughout the Gaza Strip, funding is difficult to come by. “I reached out to many international organizations but none want to cooperate even after explaining the hard situation for the disabled in Gaza,” he said. The lack of funding leaves the Deir al Balah Rehabilitation Center unable to adequately provide supplies such as compensatory devices, artificial limbs and assistance devices, all of which are essential for rehabilitation.
With the destruction of al-Wafa rehabilitation hospital, which the Israeli military manipulated images and audio to justify the bombing of, disabled Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are least equipped to deal with the daily difficulties of life under siege and are among the most vulnerable to the ever-present threat of Israeli attacks.
For more information about the Deir al Balah Rehabilitation Center you can visit their website here.