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Horror in darkness: the plight of the visually impaired in Gaza’s schools

On October 30, 2023, Shireen, a visually impaired 37 year old disability activist who is part of an activist group linking Gazans to the outside world, told The Centre for Lebanase Studies the story of her neighbour, a 30 year old woman who is also visually impaired. Shireen made sure to stress that her neighbour consents to disseminating her experience to the outside world.

Shireen’s neighbour was forced to evacuate her home due to the intense Israeli airstrikes on her neighbourhood and sought refuge in an UNRWA School. But life at the UNRWA school was so intolerable that the neighbour was compelled to leave the school and went back to live with Shireen and her family who hosted her, as Shireen’s home was not destroyed by the bombardment.

Shireen told The Centre for Lebanase Studies that her neighbour told her story because she wanted to expose the extremely difficult living conditions faced by people with disabilities who have been displaced to UNWA schools in the Gaza Strip. Additionally, she wanted to convey the extent of the fear and anxiety that were prevalent among the people displaced at the school in general, and how she felt about the predicament of yet another displacement in particular.

The current situation escalated when the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched a significant assault on Israel on October 7. This resulted in the tragic death of over 1,400 Israelis, with 230 others, including women and children, taken as hostages to Gaza. In retaliation, the Israeli military conducted air and artillery strikes, leading to the death of more than 8,000 Palestinians in Gaza, as per figures from the Hamas-run health ministry.In the wake of these events, Israel imposed severe restrictions, cutting off electricity and water supplies and halting the import of essential goods like food and medicine. A very small amount of aid was permitted through Egypt’s Rafah crossing. The region remains tense, with Israeli troops positioned near the Gaza boundary and Palestinians preparing for the possibility of a significant ground operation.

The following interview was given to Centre for Lebanese Studies (CLS) who has shared it with AOAV. The above contextualising of the war are the words of AOAV and not of CLS or the interviewer or interviewee.

What Does It Mean to Be Displaced in a UNRWA School?

‘In the unforgiving corners of reality, there were no mattresses to cradle your weary body, no blankets to shield you from the biting cold, and no pillows to rest your aching head. The cold, unyielding floor tiles became your makeshift bed, and the shirts clinging to your skin served as your only blankets. Your meager possessions, the remnants of the lives you once knew, were confined to a single bag, a makeshift pillow in this harsh and unfamiliar place.

Every night, you are plagued by back and leg pain, relentless reminders of your uncomfortable sleeping positions. Stomachaches and cramps from the cold, and headaches from anxiety.

Water, a source of life and sustenance, has become an unattainable luxury. You can’t wash your hands, your face, or your clothes. Clean water for drinking has become a distant memory, and the haunting possibility of dying from thirst loomed over you like a specter. Could you die of thirst? Yes, it’s possible!

Food, too, has become a scarce commodity. The aroma of warm meals wafting from the kitchen is a distant memory. Instead, you survive on a few cans of feta cheese, their smell permeating the stifling heat, serving as a cruel reminder of the nourishing meals you once enjoyed.

Even the basic acts of human dignity, like using the bathroom, are tainted by the reality of waiting in endless lines with hundreds of others.

Being displaced in a school means looking at the sky 30 times every minute, imagining that the next massacre will happen in this school, and the breaking news will be about you and your family.

In this place of despair, the simple act of taking a shower feels like an unattainable dream, overshadowed by the immediate struggle for survival. Electricity is a distant memory, and with it, the ability to charge phones, communicate with the world, or seek solace in the vastness of the internet seems impossible. You are isolated, cut off from the world. You could die, and no one in your family would know you’re dead.

Being displaced in a school means that even the meager sustenance of a shared loaf of bread became a triumph. Stretching it as much as possible. The important thing is something enters your stomach, and that’s a great achievement.

What does it mean to be a person with a disability displaced in an UNRWA school?

For a person with a physical disability, it means extreme difficulty in moving from one place to another.

As a person with visual impairment, hearing the shelling around without being able to see it or know where it’s coming from. You are left to imagine that you are the target, your world engulfed in darkness and fear.

But you are not alone in this suffering. You are surrounded by others, each grappling with their own concerns, each dealing with the unique challenges imposed by this cruel fate.

For those with physical disabilities, every movement is a battle. Those with hearing impairments or intellectual disabilities are trapped in a world of silent terror, their fears unexpressed, their anxieties unspoken.

For every child, every mother, and every displaced person in that school, life is a tapestry woven from threads of anxiety, tension, hunger, and sweat. It is a canvas painted with worries, sorrow, and darkness, each day tinged with anticipation and fear.

 Being displaced in a UNRWA school means anxiety, tension, hunger, sweat, worries, sorrow, darkness, anticipation, and fear, fear, fear, fear, fear, fear, fear…

The phrase “displaced in a school” should never be uttered casually, considered as if it’s a normal situation, for it is a stark reminder of the abnormality of your living condition. Being displaced in a school is never, never, never normal, and it will never be normal.

As you navigate this bleak reality, you cling to hope, the flickering candlelight in your abyss, praying for a day when normalcy will return, and the horrors of displacement will be but a distant memory.’

The video of this can be viewed here: