Two Weeks Ago She was Thriving. Now, a Middle-class Mom in Gaza Struggles to Survive

AP Photo/Abed Khaled
People help evacuate a Palestinian woman following Israeli airstrikes that targeted her neighbourhood in Gaza City, Monday, Oct. 23, 2023.

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) — Yousra Abu Sharekh’s days begin in the southern Gaza Strip often after sleepless nights amid blaring ambulance sirens and the clamor of neighbors in the brief pause between relentless Israeli airstrikes.

By daybreak, the 33-year-old mother is on the hunt for bread, lining up for hours at bakeries to buy one bag to feed her two children. Without electricity, disconnected from her relatives and terrified by the sounds of warplanes overhead, she rushes in the afternoon to see her sick mother at a crowded U.N. shelter 20 minutes away.

There, she finally can charge her phone and check on her 66-year-old father who stubbornly stayed behind in their northern Gaza City home, refusing to heed Israeli evacuation orders.

Only two weeks ago, Abu Sharekh had a thriving life, working enthusiastically at a coveted new job and caring for her family.

“I feel either we were dreaming then or we are in a nightmare now,” she said. “Everyone was making plans, enjoying their lives the best they could. Suddenly we are wandering the streets without fuel to drive our cars, electricity, water or food. Homes are lost, people are being killed.”

It’s a view shared by many among Gaza’s tiny but budding middle class for whom hard-won progress despite Israel’s 16-year blockade and the slow erosion of Gaza’s state institutions was reversed in a matter of days. After Israel declared war following Hamas’ violent rampage across the border fence, their dreams of good jobs, attending foreign universities and buying homes were dashed.

Now when thinking about the future, many draw blank, unable to imagine an existence beyond the daily fear of being killed in an airstrike. They include graphic designers seeking shelter in tents outside overcrowded U.N. facilities, architects living among dozens of other relatives and U.N. workers grappling with the destruction of their houses.

Before the war, an aspirational middle class had emerged from the rubble of earlier conflicts in Gaza. Despite the enduring blockade and severe limits on travel, they were able to invest in their children’s education, local businesses, even private beach-side bungalows and fancy eateries. Against the rising current of unemployment and precarious economic conditions, a small portion of society in Gaza managed to prosper.

Abu Sharekh graduated this summer with an engineering degree from Portland State University, in Oregon, as a Fulbright scholar. She returned home ecstatic to have landed a job with al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City and to be reunited with her family.

Within the span of a week starting Oct. 7, those hopes vanished as if crushed under the rubble of the flattened homes in her Gaza City neighborhood. Survival grew precarious. Her workplace became the scene of a horrific explosion.

Sharing a home with 70 other displaced relatives in a home in Khan Younis, Abu Sharekh said the day starts with anxiety about how to get bread to feed the many children there. Abu Sharekh’s two sons, ages 5 and 10, survive on canned beans. Water is rationed, just 300 millilitres (10 fluid ounces) per person every day. At night, their quarters are plunged into darkness.

Still, Abu Sharekh says it’s better than the overcrowded and dirty U.N. shelter at the Khan Younis Training Center, where her mother stays.

The shelter, housing nearly 11 times its designated capacity with nearly 20,000 people, is the most overcrowded among the 91 UNRWA installations where nearly half a million Gaza residents have sought refuge. Tents have cropped up outside, triggering painful memories of the mass displacement of the 1948 war with Israel, which Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe.

“It’s undignified,” Abu Sharekh says.

Men and women stand in line to use the same toilet facility. The wait is so long that fights break out. Garbage is piled outside. There is no steady supply of food or water.

Her mother, a cancer survivor, suffers from gastrointestinal issues and needs a toilet for two to three hours a day. That has been impossible in the shelter.

“It was heartbreaking, I was inside the shelter’s administration building, she was outside, and I was begging the man at the door just to let her in to use the toilet,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything for her to get in, I was so helpless, can you imagine?”

But her 63-year-old mother didn’t feel safe anywhere else, despite warnings from relatives that even U.N. shelters were not impervious to Israeli bombardment.

The U.N. reported nearly 180 internally displaced Palestinians at their facilities have been injured and 12 killed since the start of the war.

Abu Sharekh’s father, traumatized by tales of his parents’ displacement from their village in what is now the Israeli city of Ashkelon in 1948, was adamant history would not repeat itself, she said. “That was the main point for him,” she said.

He described an increasingly desperate situation in their Gaza City neighborhood: People breaking into homes looking for food and wandering the streets in search of supplies.

She fears he won’t pick up when she calls. Or that scrolling through social media, she will find her home among the several destroyed nearly every day. A strike damaged the home she shares with her husband and leveled the building her brother lived in.

“All my furniture, all my memories, windows, doors, everything is broken,” she said.

She didn’t want to leave, either. But her husband persuaded her, telling her at least the children should be spared the horror of airstrikes, and that they should stay together.

“But as we discovered, there are airstrikes everywhere.”