At the occasion of World Humanitarian Day, Terre des hommes (Tdh) interviewed Dr. Khitam Abu Hamad, Head of Terre des hommes Gaza Office. In between organising a food distribution and recruitment interviews, she managed to take a few minutes aside from her busy schedule to take a look back at what happened to her and Tdh in Gaza in the past six weeks.
Dr. Khitam went through heavy shelling (airstrikes, mortars, navy strikes on the nearby harbour, in front of the Tdh office) and countless failed ceasefires. During this time she never stopped worrying about the children of Gaza.
Without abandoning her large smile and lively personality, she offers deep reflections on social justice, the meaning of humanitarian work and recounts a fascinating encounter with a 15-year-old boy. One she will never forget.
1) What brought you to commit to humanitarian and development work?
I am very committed to my community and the children of Gaza. After I got my PhD in social policy, I decided to work in the humanitarian and development field. This changed my life. My studies were all about social justice and I wanted to contribute to it. Growing up in Gaza, I’ve been exposed to tough situations. Social justice is deeply rooted in me.
2) You are in the process of recruiting national staff today. Although we are in the middle of an emergency, you recommended to not cut corners. Today you are running a written test to six candidates. Why are you so keen on respecting such a process?
Life is very unfair here, so I try to preserve justice wherever I can. We face injustice in at least two ways. First, we live under occupation. I was born as a refugee. My family left our homeland in 1948 and never could return there. We used to own a big piece of land but we had to leave everything behind us. Secondly, I am a woman and it’s very hard for us to find our way and achieve our goals. Social and cultural constraints are a big issue here in Gaza.
Regarding the recruitment process, I wouldn’t say there is corruption but people find easy ways to get jobs. To be engaged in humanitarian and development work, one should have high standards. We strive to maintain equality among candidates.
3) As a humanitarian worker, what do you try to achieve in your day-to-day job?
I try to do my work the best I can. If we talk about Tdh child labour project, we try to remove children from working on the street, earning very little amount and we bring them back to school. I really like seeing the impact of my work.
4) Despite the heavy shelling you have witnessed in the past few weeks, you managed to help and coordinate distribution of basic needs to more than 2’000 Palestinians living in Gaza. What were your thoughts and feelings at that time?
I live in Al Zeitoun area which is considered a risky area in Gaza. Distributing food parcels in the middle of the war is a priority: poor people living in Beit Lahiya cannot find basic necessities such as food. It’s a very tough situation for them. Despite the risk of moving around, I went to Beit Lahiya during the shelling. We distributed dry food rations during the second week of the war with airstrikes every minute. Because we cannot do anything to change the political situation, we decided to help these people, not only with food but to increase their resilience and support them.
5) Do you experience any brighter moments amidst the chaos of war?
It is hard to see any bright moment when you are under heavy shelling. But social solidarity is a remarkable thing in Gaza. The whole war is a disaster but it shows how people can help each other. It seems normal for families to host 30 to 40 people, providing shelter and food to everyone. Regarding humanitarian and development organisations, they are committed as well. They work with partners but manage to distribute food and water. People provide comfort and solidarity to each other. This is a survival mechanism.
6) You are a Palestinian from Gaza. How do you manage to focus on your work without getting emotionally involved?
Practicing self-control is very important and I think I know how to do so. However I cannot say that I’m totally detached. People cannot isolate totally from the situation they live in. But I try to transform my emotions into some energy for my work. If I feel upset or powerless, I change my emotions from negative to positive. It helps me a lot in my work.
7) Can you tell us about the story of one of our beneficiaries that really struck you?
Within our child labour project, there is this one child that I will always remember. His name is Yousouf. He is 15 and grew up in a very poor family, with many siblings. He used to work 12 hours a day collecting stones and plastic rubbles. We provided him with help and managed to integrate him in a vocational training centre as a carpenter. I will never forget how he pressed his hand against mine when I met him at the vocational centre in Beit Lahiya. His handshake was so strong and insistent that it felt as if his hand was pressing against my heart. It was very emotional. At the same time it showed me that the work we do is very valuable. He said thank you in a very simple way. The child kept holding my hand sending me a powerful message: “Thank you for changing my life”.