GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The stories of war are not the only tragic stories unfolding in the Gaza Strip; there are other kinds of tragedies taking place there and all around the world. These are the stories of children of unknown parentage.
Yara (a pseudonym), 16, is one of 18 children with unknown parentage who grew up in the Mabarra al-Rahma Charitable Center in Gaza City. She was very excited to show her drawings to Al-Monitor, and we took care not to discuss sensitive subjects to avoid upsetting her.
When Yara left, Khouloud Ghanem, the director of the dormitories, told Al-Monitor, “She was a brilliant student, until one day, one of her classmates whispered in her ear asking her if she was an illegitimate child. Usually nobody at school, except the principal, knows the truth, but some people who live in the area know that these children live in the center. That's how news spreads like fire.”
She explained that the older these children get, the more questions they start asking about their parents and the reason they live in the center. Hence, the truth has to be handed to them at some point.
Ghanem said that Yara’s life turned upside down after her classmate had confronted her; her school performance started to decline and she began losing focus during classes.
In a room not far from the administration office, 18-month-old Iyas sleeps in his bed. An adoptive family has not been found for him, since he suffers from impaired vision caused by cerebral atrophy. He spends most of his time asleep and plays only with rattles.
Hazem al-Enezi, vice-chairman of Mabarra al-Rahma, told Al-Monitor that these children are socially stigmatized and considered shameful. “This unjust image affects them even as grownups, and stands as a major obstacle to their integration in society and prevents them from having careers or finding a life partner,” he said.
He added, “About 173 newborns of unknown parentage have been admitted to the center since its establishment in 1993. These children were conceived through illegitimate sexual relations and handed over [to the center] by official authorities such as the police. Of these children, 152 were adopted by families in Gaza and 18 stayed at the center. Some of them died once they reached the center because they got sick due to wounds they suffered from being left on the street or due to the cold or attacks from stray animals.”
Attia Ibrahim, 37, sought a year ago to adopt 18-month-old baby girl Janet (a pseudonym). Yet he faced numerous legal obstacles because of the official papers required for registering Janet in his name.
During an interview with Al-Monitor at his home in the southern Gaza Strip, he said, “I fell in love with her as soon as I saw her; many babies were more beautiful than her, but I stayed up all night with my wife thinking about her and picturing how we would take care of her. It took us two months before we were able to adopt her and bring her to our home.”
Ibrahim added, “I have been married for 10 years, and my wife and I were unable to conceive. My wife was very sad, but when Janet became part of our family, she changed our life and filled it with happiness.”
Janet seems happy with her red dress. She moves from couch to couch in the living room, holding anything she sets her eyes on. She sits in her mother’s lap, then suddenly starts chasing the cat.
In June 2012, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) approved an amended civil status draft law on second reading. The law is related to allowing the foster family to add the word “Mawla” (meaning, under the guardianship) after the child’s name. For instance, Janet’s name would be Janet Mawla Attia Ibrahim.
The reason for this is that Sharia forbids adoption. As a result, the adopted child remains in the foster family’s care without holding its name. Before this amendment, the adopted children held fabricated family names different from those of the foster families, which caused many problems.
Al-Monitor met with Umm Ahmad at her home in the Gaza Strip. She said, “I adopted my daughter Sanaa from Mabarra al-Rahma when she was 10 months old. She is now 10 years old and until 2012 she still held a birth certificate with a fake family name. She is very smart. She used to ask me why her father’s written name [in her official papers] was different than that of her real father.”
Sanaa (a pseudonym) does not know she is adopted, and "Mawla" appears in her full name. She still asks questions related to her name. Umm Ahmad said, “We ended up referring the case to the court, and she took my husband’s name. She now asks me why her father’s name is preceded by ‘Mawla,’ unlike her siblings' names.”
Umm Ahmad adopted Sanaa after 14 years of struggling with infertility. Then a year and a half after the adoption, she got pregnant with twins. But she does not differentiate between her three daughters and loves them equally.
Wearing her school uniform and putting a white band in her hair, Sanaa told Al-Monitor enthusiastically, “I finally have a room of my own, separate from my sisters. We always fight over the remote control and the channels we want to watch.”
In regard to the adoption process, Enezi said that the parents applying for adoption should be married for more than 10 years, and they should be well-off and unable to conceive. Mabarra al-Rahma follows up on the adopted children through regular visits. “There are around 700 applications from couples who want to adopt children. This is a large number. Priority is given according to fulfillment of the requirements and the family’s real desire to adopt. Then a specialized committee convenes to take a decision in coordination with governmental parties,” he said.
Although the Gaza Strip is a conservative society, there are children with unknown parentage. Psychologist Zahia al-Qura told Al-Monitor, “Forbidden relations are found in all societies and illegitimate children are a natural consequence. This has nothing to do with the nature of society in Gaza, but this issue is a taboo that cannot be addressed openly.”
She said that the younger generation receives insufficient sexual education and relies on getting information from peers and the Internet. Education on issues such as this should be addressed in the classroom.
Umm Ahmad is concerned about Sanaa and her twin daughters, not only because of the living conditions and threats of war in the Gaza Strip, but also because she knows that the time will come when she will have to tell Sanaa that she is adopted. She does not know how her twin daughters will react.
“Society is tough on these children and considers them shameful. But my adopted daughter has been the joy and love of my life. After adopting Sanaa we have experienced nothing but happiness,” Umm Ahmad said.
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