Five years to build, a few seconds to destroy: Reem’s story

“It took me five years to build a house of my own and move out of my abusive in-laws’ where we all were living together. Within seconds, my new dream home was destroyed, together with all my belongings and the few things I had managed to buy for my kids for the Eid celebrations. 

The kids and I were extremely happy that we finally had a home. But now we’re homeless and have nowhere to go. My children are now constantly fearful. My son no longer listens to me. He curses and hits his younger sisters. All I want from life is to have a home, to watch my children grow, and live a better life. I don’t want to beg from people or see anyone take pity on me.”

Reem, July 2021

Reem (pseudonym) is a 27-year-old woman from Gaza and mother of three children under the age of ten. She married at just 15-years-old and lived with her in-laws for four years. During that time she suffered extreme levels of domestic violence and frequently became suicidal.

Reem couldn’t afford to move out of her in-laws as she had nowhere else to go. Moving back into her parents’ home was not an option as her parents are old and unwell, and their home overcrowded with 15 siblings. However, through the financial and charitable help of community members, Reem managed to build a house of her own and turn it into a dream home. Although basic, it was enough to provide a safe home for her and her children.

On 13 May 2021, a warning missile was fired in her neighbourhood by Israel’s armed forces and Reem was forced to evacuate with no time to collect any belongings. She and her children sought shelter at an UNRWA school. Whilst there, their home was destroyed. With no alternative shelter Reem and her children remained at the school for 25 days where the conditions were far from fit to meet their needs.  The school was not an official designated shelter so no emergency assistance, including food, water, mattresses, or blankets, were available. As a survivor of domestic violence, Reem was fearful for herself and her daughters each time they had to use the bathroom. The children were traumatised by the escalation and the insecurity that they have been forced to live with. Reem worries about her children and finds their behaviour challenging.

Reem’s house was built informally, that is without authorisation, on government land. Families whose houses were destroyed or damaged during the escalation qualify for government or shelter agencies’ support, Transitional Shelter Cash Assistance, to help them rent proper accommodation while their houses are being rebuilt or repaired. However, those with informal housing are not eligible for assistance. Fortunately, with the assistance of  the Association for Woman and Child Protection (AISHA), Reem is now renting a flat for a period of six months only. Once ended, Reem and her children are at risk of being homeless. Reem is also receiving counselling and psychosocial support from AISHA.

Reem also suffers from Lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease that requires lifelong support and medication. Prohibited from accessing health care in East Jerusalem due to Israel’s persistent refusal to grant her a permit to exist Gaza has exacerbated her situation. In 2017, she applied seven times for a permit and all were refused. Emotionally exhausted by the process, she since had given up on applying. Medication for Lupus in Gaza is scarce and thus expensive, which Reem often is unable to afford. This stress exacerbates her medical condition.

Women attending a yoga session at AISHA, 2020. Photo by AISHA.
Women attending a yoga session at AISHA, 2020. Photo by AISHA.

COVID-19 and the May 2021 escalation have resulted in an increase in reported GBV cases.[1] According to the GBV sub-cluster, before the 11-day escalation of May 2021, 38 per cent of the currently- or previously-married women in Gaza had been exposed to violence from their husbands, including psychological, economic and social violence. More than half of the married, or previously, married women (aged 18-64) remained silent about their violence and only 28 per cent of them reported  knowing about existing GBV services.[2] The May scalation and the pandemic have increased GBV cases. According to UN Women, in the aftermath of 2014 escalation, there was an increase in violence against women and children. Similar results were observed in the aftermath of the Great March of Return[3] demonstrations.[4] UN Women noted a corroborated increase in negative coping mechanisms such as school drop-outs and early marriage among girls.[5]

SAWA, a 24/7 emergency helpline offering MHPSS, medical and legal support to victims of violence, reported a 135 per cent increase in caseload in May 2021 compared to May 2020. It reported that 82 per cent of all calls in the first two weeks of May were from Gaza.[6]

The May escalation  killed 41 women and 23 girls below the age of 18 and injured 398 women, 10 per cent of whom are expected to suffer long-term disability. A total of 101 women lost their husbands.[7]


[2] Women’s Affairs Center – Gaza 2021, Rapid Assessment Report on Acutely and Vulnerable Women’s and Girl’s Immediate and Critical Needs in the aftermath of May Escalation [Arabic]. P 22

[3] Between March 2018 and 31 December 2019, thousands of Palestinians in Gaza participated in the Great March of Return (GMR) demonstrations at the perimeter fence with Israel. While the vast majority of protestors were peaceful, some approached the fence attempting to damage it, burned tires, and threw stones and Molotov cocktails towards Israeli forces. Some 214 Palestinians, including 46 children, were killed and over 36,000 including nearly 8,800 children were injured during the GMR. Over 8,000 were hit by live ammunition. One Israeli soldier was killed and seven others were injured during the GMR. The crowd-control methods used by Israeli forces during the GMR and other protests along the fence raised serious concerns about excessive or unwarranted use of force, compounded by a lack of effective investigations and accountability. An independent commission of inquiry, appointed by the Human Rights
Council (HRC), found reasonable grounds to believe that the use of live ammunition by Israeli forces was unlawful in most instances.

[4] UN Women June 2021, Gender and Wars in Gaza Untangled: What Past Wars Have Taught Us? P. 13.

[5] UN Women, Gender Alter September 2021.

[6] SAWA Helpline Factsheet #25, May 2021

[7] Women’s Affairs Center – Gaza 2021, Rapid Assessment Report on Acutely and Vulnerable Women’s and Girl’s Immediate and Critical Needs in the aftermath of May Escalation [Arabic]. P. 2.