Childhood in a city of tents: Palestinian children displaced in southern Gaza

Dec 21, 2023
14-year-old Hala is living with her family in an UNRWA-run displacement camp in Khan Younis after Israeli forces displaced them from northern Gaza. (Photo: DCIP)

Ramallah, December 21, 2023—More than 85 percent of Palestinians in Gaza, or around 1.9 million people, are displaced as a result of Israeli forces’ nonstop bombardment of the Gaza Strip. Children in tightly packed displacement camps, crammed into tents with a dozen family members, just want to go home. 

Menna, 11, left, in the tent she shares with her family in Khan Younis. (Photo: DCIP)

“I want to return to our home”

Menna, a resilient 11-year-old from Beit Lahia, north of Gaza City, paints a vivid picture of a life abruptly shattered by the terrors of the ongoing Israeli military aggression against Palestinians in Gaza.

"Before October, we lived our lives normally, spending our days like any other family,” Menna told DCIP. “We woke up every morning, went to school, and returned to find my mother preparing food for us. We ate, played, studied without fear and anxiety, and lived life safely. We had everything we needed.”

Then, everything changed.

11-year-old Menna. (Photo: DCIP)

"We heard very loud and powerful explosions throughout Gaza City. My mother told me that Israeli planes were bombing houses in our area," Menna said. The once safe haven of their home became a place of fear and uncertainty. “We ran to my mother in the house due to intense fear," she added. 

"We took some necessary belongings and left the house. We went to the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood in Gaza City to my grandmother's house," Menna told DCIP. “Throughout the journey, my mother and my brother Hassan carried my disabled father, and we heard the same sounds of explosions and lived in fear.”

As they sought refuge in Sheikh Radwan, the family grappled with the challenges of securing food, resorting to baking on open fires and purchasing canned goods at inflated prices. 

The turning point came when the Israeli military dropped flyers on October 13 urging Palestinians to evacuate and head south. 

"Everyone close to our house left for the south,” Menna told DCIP. “Explosions continued in our street, and we ran from place to place within the house due to fear.”

The journey south, fraught with exhaustion and tears, brought them face to face with the ruins of their once vibrant community. 

"We witnessed people on the way also heading south. We saw the great destruction that occurred in the houses of Gaza City. We felt tired and exhausted throughout the journey, crying," Menna said.

The physical toll of the journey was intense as they carried essential belongings, a disabled father, and the weight of the unknown. Crossing the Wadi Gaza Bridge, they found themselves at the mercy of Israeli soldiers, adding another layer of uncertainty.

Menna and her family found shelter in UNRWA facilities in Khan Younis. Crowded tents, scarcity of resources, and the inability to provide essential medical care for her disabled father while seeking refuge, took a toll on them.

"I lost my whole life here at the shelter because I don't have any friends. I want to return to our home and live my life as it was before, play with my friends, and go back to school,” Menna told DCIP.

"Currently, we are suffering from extreme cold because we didn't bring enough clothes, and my siblings are always getting sick due to the cold," she said.

The belongings that Menna's family brought with them when they fled their home in northern Gaza. (Photo: DCIP)

“We seek only to survive”

Hala, a 14-year-old from the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City, is also displaced with her family in Khan Younis.

"While we were still asleep near our parents, we were startled awake by a massive explosion that shook the entire city of Gaza, very close to us,” Hala told DCIP. “Minutes later, we heard the sirens of ambulances in our street. We went down from our home and witnessed a completely destroyed house with casualties and the wounded underneath," Hala said.

The intensity of the bombing around Hala’s house forced them to evacuate and attempt to seek shelter elsewhere. 

14-year-old Hala. (Photo: DCIP)

"We took some necessary belongings and left the house, heading to a nearby area in Sheikh Radwan, away from our home. During this week, we had to evacuate like this twice," Hala said.

The displacement marked a stark shift from the security of their home to the uncertainties of an UNRWA shelter center. 

"Our lives changed completely for my entire family. We lived securely in our home, practicing our daily lives normally, but here, we set up a tent in the middle of the training college field, part of the UNRWA shelter center," Hala told DCIP.

As the scarcity of goods increased, Hala's family faced daily struggles to obtain food, water, and basic necessities. 

"As time passed, the food and water ran out, and every day we stood in line to get saline water for use in the tent. We would then go and get drinkable water for drinking. With each passing day, the food and water scarcity increased, and my father would go every morning to get some necessities, buying them at double the normal price," she said.

"The thing I miss the most is our home that we left. I wish to return to our house because all our belongings and memories are there," Hala said. 

"Now, as winter approaches, we suffer inside the UNRWA shelter center due to a lack of sufficient clothing for all of us. My father bought some clothes, but they are not enough,” Hala said. 

Hala's words encapsulate a universal yearning for a return to normalcy, for the restoration of the routine and aspirations that once defined her life. 

"We had many aspirations and dreams, but now, we seek only to survive," she concluded.

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