‘I miss my crayons’: An 11-year-old in Gaza must find water for his family

Karem Samra must now shelter with his family in the school where he once studied and played.

Gaza City
People inspect damage and recover items from their homes following Israeli air strikes on February 27, 2024 in Gaza City, Gaza [Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images]

Gaza City, Gaza Strip — School is no longer where 11-year-old Karem Samra goes to study and play every day. Instead, it is where he and his family have been sheltering for the past four months, hoping for protection among its shattered windows and destroyed classrooms.

Every day Karem goes out to queue for six hours to get two gallons (7.6 litres) of dirty water for his family. On a good day, a very good day, he can get the water back to the school and his waiting family.

“Sometimes when I am heading back to the classroom with our water, I fall because they’re heavy. I cry, because I know there’s no one to help, and that my family won’t have anything to drink that day,” he told Al Jazeera, the pale dust still caught in his eyebrows.

Waiting for his return are Karem’s four sisters and his parents, Suzanne and Ameen Samra.

His father, Ameen, 54, is a fisher who was once able to provide for his family. The Israeli blockade has severed that lifeline.

“I miss my crayons. I miss my friends and schoolbooks,” Karem told Al Jazeera. “I wish our house hadn’t been destroyed. I wouldn’t have to go through this struggle for food and water every day.”

As Karem struggles to support his family, even going so far as to sell his clothes for food and firewood, his parents look on and grieve for his lost childhood.

“He would study, play on his iPad and draw beautiful pictures,” his mother, Suzanne, remembered. “He would be gone for hours in his room,” she said, describing how the family would wait for him to emerge with “a wonderful little painting.”

However, those memories belong to a past life. Now the Samras are among thousands of displaced Palestinians sheltering in the school towards the eastern reaches of Gaza City, where destruction, famine and disease run rampant.

Karem has had to assume the responsibilities of an adult: queueing for supplies, bringing in the water, searching for firewood and fighting with the other children for whatever scraps of aid enter Gaza.

Life in the school has been hard for the Samras. Whatever fond memories Karem once had of his former classroom have now been erased by the reality of the present.

“I had loved school so much, and I had been so happy back then,” Karem recalled, adding: “After I lost my books, my excellent report cards and even some of my teachers to the strikes, I don’t think it’s possible for me to love it again, at least not as much.

“I had dreamed of becoming a pilot when I grew up, but not after I saw all those planes killing us, destroying our house, schools, restaurants and gardens and scaring me during the night,” Karem said. “Now I don’t know what I want to be, because it doesn’t make any difference any more. Schools and universities have all been destroyed here.”

Karem’s work and the toll it takes on his still-developing mind and body comes at a cost. His parents describe him breaking down in tears for no obvious reason. Both talk of how his small body is racked by pain, as the exhaustion of his circumstances takes hold.

“I don’t think that’s what children are supposed to be doing,” Ameen said, “They’re children and they should live on that.”

“We get extremely sad to see our son go like that, and we try hard to convince him to have a rest and not overwhelm himself with much every day,” his mother, Suzanne agreed. “But no matter how tired he gets, he insists upon continuing to help me, his father and sisters amid all the difficulties that we are facing,” she added.

Still, Karem remains an 11-year-old. He sleeps in her arms, reassured by her promises to buy him the most beautiful clothes and toys once the worst of the war has passed.

The sound of the explosions and screams sometimes wakes Karem up, dragging him into the world confused and terrified, his mother says. His eyes appear to tremble, the colour drained from his face as he comes to terms with the reality of his surroundings.

On those occasions, all his father can do is smile, say something reassuring and ruffle his son’s hair, all the while contemplating the psychological support Karem and other children of Gaza will need once the war ended.

“It all feels too much to see our children going hungry and thirsty and having to endure this miserable existence,” Ameen said, the pain colouring his voice.

Suzanne was more reflective, only saying that she hoped for a future where Karem and all the children of Gaza would look back on these times as they would a distant dream.

Source: Al Jazeera