Gaza shopkeeper's act of kindness sparks debt forgiveness campaign
GAZA STRIP - Osama Abudalal, a shoe shop owner in Gaza's Deir al-Balah refugee camp, decided to begin 2018 by forgiving all of the debts owed to him.
“I cannot see the poverty level reaching its peak in my society and turn a blind eye. I know many fathers who return home late after their children are asleep because they feel helpless about meeting their increasing needs,” Abudalal told Middle East Eye.
A Facebook post announcing his decision quickly gained momentum and encouraged hundreds of others to follow in his footsteps.
“The sum of the debts I have forgiven equals the amount of money I have been making since I first started working at the age of 18,” the 33-year old told MEE while flipping through the pages of a notebook listing the forgiven money.
I cannot see the poverty level reaching its peak in my society and turn a blind eye
- Osama Abudalal, shoe shop owner
While local journalists estimate Abudalal has forgiven around 102,000 shekels ($30,000) of debt, he is very reserved about the amount.
“Even my wife does not know, I prefer to keep it to myself,” he said.
Abu Muhammed is a 35-year-old father of four living in an apartment in Deir al-Balah with his elderly mother.
One week before Abudalal announced his intention to cancel the debts, Abu Muhammed had bought his children and nephews shoes for 700 shekels ($205) and promised to pay the amount the following month.
When he received the news that his debts had been cancelled, he was thrilled.
“I was attending a family wedding when my cousin told me the store cancelled my debts. It was like attending two weddings at the same time,” he told MEE with a smile.
“After the salary cuts last April, I have been unable to meet my family’s basic needs. What do you think an employee who is responsible for seven people can do with 60 percent of his salary, which already was not enough?” he asked sarcastically.
Abu Muhammed, a government employee, used to make 1550 shekels ($455) a month, but now makes a stipend of 900 shekels ($265) a month.
After the salary cuts last April, I have been unable to meet my family’s basic needs
- Abu Muhammed, government employee
In April 2017, the Palestinian Authority (PA) slashed the salaries of 60,000 civil employees in Gaza by 30 percent. According to the PA, it was due to a drop in foreign aid money. The move sparked protests and outrage among families already struggling to get by in the impoverished strip.
Israel has imposed a suffocating blockade on the Gaza Strip since 2007 after Hamas took control of Gaza from forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, one year after it won legislative elections. According to the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, 38.8 percent of Gaza residents are stuck below the poverty line - almost double the number in the West Bank - as a result of the Israeli blockade and the continuous closure of the Strip’s main border crossings with both Israel and Egypt.
'Forgive and you shall be rewarded'
Two hours after Abudalal shared his post, it became the subject of a Facebook discussion between a group of young journalists and activists.
Within a few hours, the motivated group contacted influential citizens, talked to dozens of shop owners about the initiative, and launched a social media campaign under the hashtag #سامح_تؤجر, Arabic for (Forgive and you shall be rewarded).
“Just like how Tunisia’s Muhammed Bouazizi sparked a revolution in his country six years ago, we wanted Abudalal’s initiative to spark hope in Gaza,” said Wael Jarwan, a 33-year-old journalist and one of the coordinators of the initiative.
I have been living in this apartment for more than two years now, but I have not paid the rent for the past six months
- Ahmed, taxi driver
“What contributed to the success of the initiative and still keeps us going is the great support we receive from hundreds of people, shops, companies, and even political parties,” he added.
While some shopowners have forgiven what amounts to thousands of dollars, as part of the campaign others donated food, clothes, medicine, hot meals, heaters, and winter blankets to hundreds of families in need.
In less than two weeks, the coordinators of the initiative estimated that the total amount of donations and forgiven debts equalled 850,000 shekels ($250,000).
In July 2017, a United Nations report revealed that the life conditions of nearly two million residents - including 1.3 million refugees - are dramatically exacerbating and the Strip has become “unlivable”.
'I could not sleep'
As heavy rain and flash floods attack the Strip during the winter, nearly 560,000 people are at risk of being forced out of their homes due to poor housing conditions. But this year many apartment owners have waived rent arrears as part of the campaign, allowing dozens of low-income families to stay warm throughout the cold months.
Ahmed, 42, lives in the al-Shate' refugee camp in western Gaza city and works as a taxi driver. He hasn’t been able to pay his rent for the past six months because a hike in fuel prices has caused petrol to reach around 6 shekels ($1.80) per litre.
I am so thankful. I will be able to keep my family and children warm this winter
- Ahmed, taxi driver
“I have been living in this apartment for more than two years now, but I have not paid the rent for the past six months. I have been under so much stress that I could not sleep at night,” he said.
Ahmed, who has to pay a monthly rent of 500 Shekels ($147), says he can finally breathe a sigh of relief after his debt was cancelled.
“I am so thankful. I will be able to keep my family and children warm this winter.”
In the aftermath of Israel’s summer offensive on Gaza in 2014, more than 100,000 people were internally displaced as a result of the complete or partial destruction of their homes. Three years later, 29,000 (nearly 6,300 families) are still displaced and living in poor conditions.
Forgiving more than just debts
A few days after the campaign was launched, the coordinators were surprised to discover that people and different establishments were finding new and creative ways to "forgive," after being inspired by the initiative.
Al-Helou International Hospital, located in western Gaza city, announced that its fertility centre intends to perform 120 in-vitro fertilisation treatments for free, in addition to discounts on all medical services which many families cannot afford.
I have been under so much stress that I could not sleep at night
- Ahmed, taxi driver
Although government hospitals such as Al-Shifa usually offer critical medical services for free, they are always overflowing with patients and are low on medical supplies and equipment, forcing patients to sometimes wait up to 18 months for surgery.
The health sector in the Strip is standing at the brink of collapse with 43 percent of pharmaceuticals at zero stock and essential life-saving equipment not functioning due to electricity shortages, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Additionally, on average around 50 percente of patients that apply for medical treatment abroad are rejected.
As the initiative was supported by doctors, journalists, shop owners and political parties, lawyers have also been supportive by offering free legal services to low-income families and unemployed youth.
“I took part in this campaign because the legal protection of people must never depend on the person’s ability to pay for it,” Muhammed Seyam, a 25-year-old lawyer said.
“People here have been disappointed by local and international officials always failing to take action over the collective punishment of two million people living under blockade for over a decade," Seyam said.
"It is time for them to take action themselves.”
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.