A castle of hope for the helpless of Khan Yunis

Published: 20 May 2003 0:00 CET

Till Mayer in Khan Yunis

Ibrahim Hamdan looks briefly in the grim eyes of the fighter, armed with a Kalashnikov and dressed in a faded olive green uniform.

The encounter with the "martyr", as Palestinians call those killed during the Intifada, is part of the 13-year-old’s daily routine, as he attempts to negotiate the 25 steps that lead down to the pavement from the bare room in which he lives in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.

The short descent would be impossible without the help of Ibrahim’s brother. The staircase is narrow, and the spokes scratch the plaster.

Downstairs, the 23-year-old wipes the sweat from his face and turns his younger brother towards the street. Ibrahim looks across the dusty alley to the wall opposite, where the discoloured poster of the "martyr" is stuck, surrounded by brightly coloured Intifada slogans.

Every school day starts for the teenager with an awkward wheelchair journey past the austere, grey facades of the hastily built houses of the poor. Most of the inhabitants here are refugees - too many people living in too little space. The 11 members of Ibrahim's family share three poorly furnished rooms.

Daily life is a struggle in the Gaza Strip, a struggle that resumes early every morning. Casual labourers make their way to the checkpoints in the hope of getting a job on the Israeli side. One such worker is Ibrahim's father, who spends hours waiting between concrete barriers and barbed wire every day for a fistful of shekels.

Jobs have become rare since the second Intifada started and the checkpoints became more impermeable.

The "Al-Amal Abilities Development Centre", run by the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS), is a ray of hope. Like a castle among the crouching houses of the camp, this huge building promises security. It even seems to have battlements.

Inside, the most vulnerable receive support: children and young disabled people. Most of them are residents of Khan Yunis.

Ibrahim’s classroom has become a second home for him, yet it seems a world away from his real home. The ceilings are not low. Big windows let the daylight in. He laughs with his friends, completely forgetting the shooting and the fear of the night before.
Nobody pays any attention as he passes by in his wheelchair, or stares at his head which seems far too big for his slight body.

Everybody is accepted at the Red Crescent centre - with all his limitations, but also with all his talents.

The centre offers a wide range of facilities and services, including a hospital, a rehabilitation centre, workshops for the disabled, a kindergarten, theatre, sports hall and a college for social professions. There are even rooms that can be booked by staff members unable to reach home because checkpoints have closed earlier than expected.

Every day, 1,200 people make use of the centre. The severely disabled learn how to read and write, others find a new purpose for their lives.

Rami Abu Teer used to be known by his friends as "Rami the footballer”. That was, until a bullet brutally cut short his sporting career and left him disabled.

"I heard something like a short singing whistling signal," says the young man in the wheelchair. His former life disappeared in a split second. Now every afternoon he takes part in the culture workshop, singing the sadness away from his soul.

He now has his first fans, and his new nickname is "Rami, the singer". But at night the singer still dreams of playing football.

Jean E. Calder has seen too many such sad stories in the last 20 years. Since the early 1980s, she has worked with the PRCS, first assisting Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, until Beirut became a battlefield.

Three of the disabled children the now 67-year-old Australian took with her to Egypt on her next mission were Badr, Dalal and Mohammed. Those children grew up, but they are still a close family. Dalal, who is blind, has a good chance of studying at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, thanks to a scholarship.

"Every human being has so many talents. We have to support them, that is our duty," explains Calder, who heads the centre’s rehabilitation department.

Upstairs, Ibrahim has a smile on his face. His teacher praises him as he closes his school book. At the entrance Ibrahim's brother is waiting, ready to again push him home through the dusty grey alleys, back to the 25 steps.

In the apartment, the radio tells the news: Another Palestinian fighter has been killed in a helicopter attack. Soon Ibrahim will see a new poster on his way to school.

Related links:

Palestine autonomous and occupied territories: appeals, updates and reports
Palestine Red Crescent Society
News story: Amid hardships, disabled children still top Palestine Red Crescent's priorities
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