Arafat Sarsak and his son Mohanad
In a crowded alley in the al-Shuja’iyya neighborhood, three little kids are running after a yellow ball. Seconds later, a fourth joins them and they run in circles in a tiny alley that runs between two buildings. This is the only space they have to play, and they enjoyed the photo I took with my phone.
I was waiting for Arafat Sarsak in front of his home. His house is a small square covered by slabs of asbestos, and covering the asbestos is a transparent plastic tarp held down with rocks to keep it in place and protect against the wind. Plastic is also covering the windows, from inside the house. It was cold and I waited a couple of minutes until Arafat met me with two plastic chairs to sit on, with Arafat’s younger brothers surrounding us on the floor.
Arafat Sarsak is 37 years years old and a father of 7 kids, the youngest is 2 years old. The eldest, Osama, 14, died early this month in a horrible way. He was found dead under piles of trash in a municipal dump east of Gaza City in a place known as “the rubbish”. Arafat and his two sons secure their livelihood by collecting empty cans and plastic material and selling them to scrap traders. The boys help their father and they work almost 10 hours a day to earn 15 shekels (around $4.60) on the best days.
Osama’s death, under the garbage and covered by sand and dirt on a harsh rainy day, became the talk of the neighborhood and the taxis. “It is awful how that boy was found dead after long hours of searching among the garbage, that one should’ve been warm and safe in his bed, not there, digging through plastic packages hoping to find something good,” I heard in a taxi on the night he was found. “Did you see the video of his mother on Facebook?” the driver asked.
People on the streets and in taxis reacted to this accident in different ways. The video of the weeping mother was very hard. I heard some women blame her of letting him go out in this weather, others are blaming the municipality, while the majority are blaming the bad conditions in Gaza that lead a boy to go to such places to secure his livelihood.
I watched the video the driver mentioned. The local media rushed to film the misery of the family. The video starts with the mother just receiving the news that her son was found dead, her hands roughly stretching her dress and hijab, her head looking forward and her eyes closing with unstoppable tears. She screams in front of phone cameras as people ask her to talk about her son. She starts to speak, but words crumble as she screams and quickly moves to where Osama sleeps on ground brush on the floor. She picks up the ground brush and finds five shekels and screams: “He went to work to save some money and get new clothes. He kept telling me that the cold eats him, oh my sweetheart, oh my son!”
Searching among the rubbish and looking for some plastic or cans to sell to scrap traders who use them for recycling is daily work for hundreds of people, especially kids. I always see these kids and teenagers working to support their families, some of them riding donkeys with a trolley sweeping the streets looking for the same materials.
Arafat Sarsak honestly wants the best for his kids. He has five daughters and one son after Osama’s death, and he lives with his sick parents and two younger brothers in the same house. He works collecting rubbish with no shame as long as he gets something to offer his family, even if it less than the minimum of what they need, and he won’t give up. In their house, rainwater falls from the roof to the floor in the middle of their living area and bedroom, which is the same place. Some meters away there is a stone shelf with some tools in the kitchen, but there is no fridge or coolers of any vegetables or food, nothing to indicate that there is something prepared there. The family puts some brush on the ground and spreads it to the corners of the room to trap the water.
“For 20 years now I’ve been working in collecting stuff from garbage, what should I do, steal? Become a criminal? I have to live with my family, I have to eat, I can’t offer anything to my family, my kids are dying looking for some new clothes,” the grief-stricken father tells me.
“We went together to the rubbish, we were looking together among things, he found aluminum cable, he was very excited to sell it, then we spread out, everyone went in different directions, but after two hours Osama did not come back. I started to search for him and called his name out loud, but then I could not find him,” he said.
The father then informed the police and the civil defense. The civil defense team with some people from the area started to search for Osama, but no one could find him.
“We found him after 1:00 in the morning, he was choking, sand stuffed his mouth, he was choking beneath the rubbish,” Arafat said.
The bad conditions under which Palestinians in Gaza live due to the blockade and the lack of work is leading to a rise in child labor. For example, as you enter the markets you can now find dozens of kids who will offer to follow you and carry your packages in their small wagon. This is a phenomenon I had never seen before the last decade or so.
The story of Osama is dramatic and tragic, and it received a lot of attention, but there are thousands like him across the Gaza Strip who have left their schools only in order to get something to eat.
So where are the Palestinian voices in mainstream media?
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Tareq S. Hajjaj is the Mondoweiss Gaza Correspondent, and a member of Palestinian Writers Union. He studied English Literature at Al-Azhar university in Gaza. He started his career in journalism in 2015 working as news writer/translator at the local newspaper Donia al-Watan. He has reported for Elbadi, Middle East Eye, and Al Monitor. Follow him on Twitter at @Tareqshajjaj.
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