Q&A: Wheelchairs for Gaza

Al Jazeera spoke with Dr Basel Abuwarda about his fundraising campaign to rebuild Gaza’s school for disabled children.

Gaza school
Gaza's Shams al-Amal school, which was destroyed on the last day of Israel's 2014 offensive, is being rebuilt [Islam Radi/Al Jazeera]

On the last day of Israel’s 2014 assault on the Gaza Strip, Shams al-Amal, Gaza’s only school for disabled children, was levelled, leaving the school’s 140 students without a viable alternative.

The school is now being rebuilt via the Save Gaza Project, which has launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise money for wheelchairs, mobility aids and educational supplies. The project, which also aims to raise funds to purchase wheelchairs for other children who became disabled or had limbs amputated in the 2014 war, hopes to see the new school reopened in June. The two-month crowd-funding campaign ends on April 10.

Al Jazeera spoke with Basel Abuwarda, a doctor and human rights activist who founded the Save Gaza Project, about how the children most affected have been coping with all of this.

RELATED: Gaza: After the war

Al Jazeera: Can you describe what happened to the Shams al-Amal school during last summer’s war?

Basel Abuwarda: On August 26, 2014, which was the last day of the Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip, Israeli warplanes targeted the Society of Physically Handicapped People’s buildings, which are located in the Zeitoun neighbourhood in the southern Gaza Strip.

As a result, Shams al-Amal was almost completely destroyed.

Just as with most of the homes, schools and hospitals and other buildings in Gaza, there was no reason for it to be targeted. The school had no links to militant activity, and there was not one piece of knowledge or evidence to suggest that any militant activity had occurred in the school.

Al Jazeera: Were any children or teachers injured in the strike?

The loss of stability and of the routine of going to school caused the children to suffer even more trauma during times of hardship.


Abuwarda: Thankfully, no. Because the war had been going on for so long already, the school had already been evacuated and temporarily closed due to safety concerns.

Al Jazeera: How has this affected the students at Shams al-Amal, many of whom already faced a challenging future?

Abuwarda: Shams al-Amal is the only school dedicated to the needs of physically disabled children in Gaza. The destruction of the school left the disabled students with no comparable alternative for their education.

Each and every one of the children suffered greatly during the war, even without the destruction of their school. The loss of stability and of the routine of going to school caused the children to suffer even more trauma during times of hardship.

A school should always be a place of safety and trust for children, but after the destruction, it is likely that these children will never feel truly safe in any school again.

Al Jazeera: How have the children coped with this, both physically and psychologically?

Abuwarda: After the war, tents were put up at the school to be used as classrooms. During the winter, the children had to study in these tents, which were unable to provide adequate shelter or protection from the rain and cold.

After a lot of searching, Shams al-Amal was able to secure a single classroom in a school that is located very far from the original school buildings, but it did not provide enough space for all of the children, and the classroom and bathroom facilities were not built or equipped to accommodate disabled people.

Some children did not have their own wheelchairs and relied on the school’s wheelchairs, which were destroyed in the war. Not having wheelchairs puts more of a strain on the children’s teachers and caregivers, because more effort and strength is required to help the children move around. Not having access to a wheelchair impacts negatively on the confidence, ability and independence of the children, too, because they rely more heavily on assistance from others.

The loss of their school and wheelchairs caused the children to be down and depressed. Their school was the only place they could have a sense of normality. Of course, these children are friends with one another, so they missed the opportunity to spend time together. The children considered the school their second home. Due to so many changes and the stressful experience of a new environment, a lot of these students are no longer attending school.

Al Jazeera: How much money are you aiming to raise and how will it be used?

Their morale is boosted to know that people all over the world saw what happened and cared enough to give from their own pockets to help fix it.


Abuwarda: Our original goal for this fundraiser was $35,000 to replace the most essential things that the school needs: the wheelchairs and study equipment and supplies. We never planned to receive so much support and so many donations so quickly, but when we realised how eager people were to support this cause, we wanted to show donors that any excess to the $35,000 would not go to waste or be unaccounted for.

We expanded our goal to raise a total of $70,000 through this campaign to benefit Shams al-Amal. Additional funds will go towards replacing furniture that was destroyed; the staff attempted to salvage the damaged furniture, which was in terrible condition, but it was clear that the school will need new furniture.

We also allocated money for computers and mobility aids for the students, like canes and equipment suited to their special needs, so they are able to work on their abilities. Additional funds raised beyond the $70,000 will enable us to distribute wheelchairs to people outside of Shams al-Amal who became disabled as a result of the Israeli offensive.

Al Jazeera: What is the current state of the school, and how long will it take to get it back to what it was before the Israeli assault?

Abuwarda: The original school has not been rebuilt yet – even the wreckage has not been removed yet, because the cost of having it removed is unaffordable.

The new school building, being built about 100 metres from the wreckage of the old one, is expected to be open for use in mid-June, providing that the same pace of progress as now is kept up. Even after finally being able to afford to rebuild or repair the damage caused in the war, people in Gaza face further delays due to being unable to access the required construction materials.

Al Jazeera: How are the students reacting to the fundraising campaign? Are they optimistic about the future?

Abuwarda: The students were just as surprised as we were to know that their story was reaching so many people. Their morale is boosted to know that people all over the world saw what happened and cared enough to give from their own pockets to help fix it.

In spite of all of the difficulties and terror these children have suffered, they show resilience, and it is my hope that they will stay optimistic as they grow up – and even more so, that a resolution to the endless suffering is reached, so these children get a chance at living, not just surviving.

Follow Megan O’Toole on Twitter: @megan_otoole

Source: Al Jazeera