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Saja Abu Iltayef, an 11-year-old Palestine refugee, is from the area of Sha’af, just east of the Shujaiya neighbourhood in the eastern side of Gaza City. She is full of hopes and dreams about going back to school. Shujaiya, where 92,000 people live within an area of 6 sq km, is one of the most densely populated areas in the Gaza Strip. 

Life is not easy for Saja and her family. Shujaiya was one of the most heavily affected areas during the 2014 summer hostilities. Moreover, the eight-year Israeli-imposed blockade on Gaza, which severely restricts the movement of people and goods, means that many refugees are unable to explore work opportunities beyond the coastal enclave. Saja’s father is a teacher, but with the large family he has, it is hard to afford all the needs of his children, especially with none of his elder sons working. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics put unemployment in Gaza at 41.6% for the first quarter of 2015, one of the highest in the world. According to the World Bank, youth unemployment soared to more than 60% by the end of 2014. 

The flat where Saja lives with her extended family is on the fourth floor of a multistorey building. It consists of five rooms – one for her parents, one for her brother and his wife with their little child, a guest room, one full of old furniture, and the last one, where she used to sleep and study for her lessons. “I used to sleep in this room, but since the war I refuse to sleep there,” says Saja. “I feel so scared, so I prefer to sleep in the parlour with my little brothers and sisters; we all feel safer there.”

“I felt very sad when I heard about [the possible delay in the school year],” says Saja. “Education is very important to me, as well as to many other children in the Gaza Strip. It is the only way we can keep our respect and fulfil our dreams.”

While many children in the world are enjoying their childhood and living in safe and peaceful places, it is not like that for Saja. “We don’t feel secure or safe here in Gaza,” she explains. “A war can break out at any moment and more children can be killed. It makes me sad to remember the children who were killed and who will not be able to go back to school.”

© 2015 UNRWA Photo by Tamer Hamam

Saja walking with her sister to school amid the destroyed houses in Shujaiya.

Saja studies at Shujaiya Elementary Co-Ed ‘A’ school, meaning she has to walk nearly two kilometres every day from her home to school and vice versa. For her, however, it is not a long distance. “It doesn’t feel that long because I usually go with my little sister, my cousins, and friends from the neighbourhood,” she explains. “We speak about our friends, the school and events happening around us.”

Photo credit: © 2015 UNRWA Photo by Ahmad Awad

Saja stands with her friend whose house was destroyed during the 2014 summer hostilities. 

Though Saja is still young, she and many other children in the Gaza Strip have witnessed three wars. The most recent, in summer 2014, felt like the worst and was unforgettable for her. “I feel so scared at night,” she says. “I still remember the day when we had to flee our house with the rest of my family. It was during Ramadan, and my mother prepared the suhoor (the meal that Muslims receive before dawn during Ramadan), but we were so scared that we could not eat.: “We went to sleep, then early the next morning my mother woke all of us suddenly and told us to get out of the home and try to run to the main street… The shelling was terrible and extensive. My uncles were holding white flags, the street was full of people running, and children were screaming… This is something I will never forget my whole life.”

Photo credit: © 2015 UNRWA Photo by Tamer Hamam

With the start of the new 2015/16 school year, Saja thinks about the difficult times she had last year when school commenced after the conflict. She remembers trying to finish her homework by the dim lights during consistent electricity cuts. Since 2006, the Gaza Strip has been plagued by a chronic electricity crisis with rolling blackouts that last between 12 to 16 hours per day that heavily affect the most populated areas. In addition, more than 70 per cent of households in Gaza are supplied with piped water for only six to eight hours once every two to four days, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). To cope with the long blackouts, private households and service providers are forced to resort to backup generators, which are unreliable due to their dependence on expensive, and mostly unaffordable, fuel and spare parts.

Photo credit: © 2015 UNRWA Photo by Ahmad Awad

When not at school and when the weather is not too hot, Saja enjoys playing with her friends outside. 

“Last week there was a heat wave – the houses were like ovens and there was no fan, as we had no electricity to turn the fan on,” recalls Saja. “This is not fair; reading or even going to school during such weather is risky, and staying home is really boring with no TV or other means of entertainment – there is nothing we can do.”

Photo credit: © 2015 UNRWA Photo by Ahmad Awad

Saja walks on the beach, a place that makes her happy. 

“I want to feel like most children around the world,” says Saja. “I want to feel happy and be able to play, but mostly, I want to feel safe. The beach is my favorite place where I feel happy.” 

The eleven-year-old girl enjoys school and is looking forward to going back to meet her teachers and her best friend. “I love my school and I love my English teacher. I wish to become a teacher one day, though I want to teach mathematics,” says Saja.

Photo credit: © 2015 UNRWA Photo by Ahmad Awad

Saja at the beach in Gaza, her favorite place. 

Through the many challenges, Saja still believes that one day she can enjoy a peaceful environment: “I hope that there will be no more wars and that I can live in peace with my family.”

Photo credit: © 2015 UNRWA Photo by Tamer Hamam