BEIT LAHIA, Gaza Strip — At the age of six, Soha Harez would don her green school uniform, pull her brown hair back in a white hairband and join her classmates every morning in class. Sadly, this routine only lasted a month, because she had to quit school and become a housemaid.
Soha’s father worked sporadically at a cookie factory, earning in the best of times the equivalent of $10 a month. Soha's mother worked as a maid to cover the basic needs of her six children. When her mother was diagnosed with a serious illness, Soha quit school to take over her job. Two years later, a team from the Future Hope Center, a child protection initiative in northern Gaza, knocked on her door and talked her parents into letting Soha take advantage of the center's programs with the hope that she would then continue her education.
Operated by Terre des Hommes, an international nongovernmental organization, the center raises awareness among children, parents and other community members about the dangers of child labor and the importance of education. The center helps vulnerable working children and those who drop out of school through various projects, ranging from a summer school to year-round programs requiring a few hours every day.
“Being at the center is like a rebirth for me,” Soha, now 10, told Al-Monitor. “This is where I study, learn, play, read inspiring stories and live a normal life.”
Ahmed Othman, 15, was one of the best students during his first years in school. His grades deteriorated, however, due to his work collecting and selling plastic and copper as well as breaking rocks in the border area between Beit Lahia and Israel.
The labor was tiring and dangerous, but Othman needed to do it to provide for his 10-member family. Working all day to provide for them, he eventually lost the energy and interest to study. That changed after he started going to the center.
“As soon as we joined the center, we attended awareness sessions on organization, cleanliness, conduct and some skills,” Othman told Al-Monitor. “The sessions were beneficial, as they had a positive impact on my personality and behavior. They gave me the opportunity to learn new things.”
Educational monitoring helped Othman return his attention to studying and improving his grades. He earned a score of 96 (out of 100) on his final exams last year.
“I dream of being an Arabic teacher,” he said. “I never consider going back to work on the streets. Here, I regained my dignity, used my rights [to education] and came to know who I really am. My future is not collecting [plastic and cooper] or selling rocks, but to become a teacher.”
Rola Saleh, 12, never had to quit school altogether, but during her studies, she shelled peas at home with members of her family. “My father drove home a truck full of peas, which we shelled and packed for $1 per 10 kilograms,” Saleh told Al-Monitor. “My father would also bring arugula and peppermint. We cleaned and wrapped them into bundles and then scoured the street to sell them for 28 cents a bundle. We would work from after we got back from school until nightfall. Therefore, we couldn’t find enough time to study.”
Saleh fell behind at school. She envied the top students in her class, wishing she could count herself among them. After she joined the Future Hope Center, she could, by eventually catching up on her studies.
“At the center, we study and work hard,” Saleh said. “Some days ago, I obtained the grade six certificate. When my mother saw it, she hugged me. She was very happy that I ranked as the second top student in my class.”
Saleh added, “I dream of continuing my education and becoming a nurse in the future to help patients and ease their suffering.”
Khitam Abu Hamad, office manager for Terre des Hommes in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “There are no accurate numbers to confirm the extent of child labor in the Gaza Strip.” Abu Hamad views the nature of the group's work as evidence of the socioeconomic deterioration caused by the Israeli siege against Gaza, including the widespread unemployment and high rate of poverty that it exacerbates or creates.
“In our project to protect vulnerable children and reintegrate dropped-out students and workers into school, we targeted the north Gaza governorate because it is an agricultural border area that provides a very fertile environment for child labor,” Abu Hamad said. “The Future Hope Center adopted the project in partnership with the Beit Lahia Development Association.”
Abu Hamad further stated that the project combines academic and psychological assistance and also provides the children with entertainment and meals. There are lessons in Arabic, English and mathematics. The psychological support is for children who have experienced verbal, physical and sexual abuse while working on the streets.
“We at Terre des Hommes have a full partnership with the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Social Affairs. The Ministry of Education hands us at the end of each semester lists of children who fail to take their final exams,” Abu Hamad explained.
After receiving the list of dropouts, the nonprofit dispatches social workers to visit the students' homes during the three-month summer break and try to convince their parents to allow their children to resume their studies. Those who do join the center take a test to assess their academic level. They attend psychological support and academic sessions throughout the summer holiday.
At the end of the break, the students take another test to compare their progress. Then, with the new school year starting, the students choose between pursuing an academic, general education or vocational school. Each year, 130 children from northern Gaza take their place at one of these schools, thanks to Terre des Hommes' annual funding of $50,000, which is used to provide transportation, school uniforms, writing paper and reading materials.