A prison within a prison

Barrier enclosing the Gaza Strip
Barrier enclosing the Gaza Strip (© Eric Beauchemin)

When one thinks of prison islands many names spring to mind – Devil’s Island, Robben Island, Alcatraz Island, to name a few. Gaza may not be an island or a prison but it feels like both to many residents – especially since an Israeli blockade cut them off from the rest of the world. Fouzan Saleh, an unemployed businessman, suffers from depression. He’s had to close his small textile factory and sell off his sewing machines one by one to support his family. He lives in a small apartment with his wife, three children and his 60-year-old mother who came to Gaza as a refugee in 1948. The family has been threatened with eviction and depends on aid for food and basic necessities. To “escape” the pressure of not being able to support his family, Saleh sleeps in the garden or walks to the beach. His eldest daughter, age 14, dreams of becoming a psychiatrist to help people like her parents.

In October 2008, producer Eric Beauchemin travelled to Gaza for a mental health conference and spent time with the Saleh family. He left just before the borders were closed to foreign journalists – two months before Israel began another bombing assault on Gaza.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: March 29, 2009

“A prison within a prison” garnered a gold medal in the Human Relations category at the New York Radio Festivals in 2009.


Gaza is both a prison and an island. It’s a prison because everyone is trapped within its borders. You can’t leave Gaza. Only the sea makes us feel free. So Gaza is a prison, a desert island because no one knows anything about us.

Fouzan Saleh is an unemployed Palestinian businessman in his late 30s. He has a kind face, but he spends most of his time staring off into the distance, expressionless. Fouzan lives in a new neighborhood with no paved roads in the north of Gaza City. Like 9 out of 10 people in Gaza, Fouzan suffers from depression. It’s estimated that 70% of Gazans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, caused by years of violence between Israelis and Palestinians and amongst Palestinians themselves.

On the ground floor of his apartment building Fouzan takes me into his textile factory. The large room is deserted except for some old cloth on the ground and a few sewing machines.

He rented the room nearly two years ago and bought 30 sewing machines. He used to import material from Israel, and his employees made clothes for the Israeli market. All that came to an end when Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza in June of 2007. Now he sells his sewing machines one by one to survive. He has seven machines left.

Fouzan tells me he hasn’t earned any money at all since the beginning of the siege. He originally rented this place together with his brother, but they stopped paying the rent a year and a half ago. The landlord could come any day to tell him to remove his machines and other belongings. The landlord has already filed a case against him to repossess the room. He’s also afraid that the landlord might file another case to seize his home because he hasn’t been paying rent for that either.

Fouzan says he can’t find a regular job, let alone start a business because there are no raw materials in Gaza, and there’s no money. Everyone is being laid off work, and there are just no jobs. There’s no hope of any improvement soon. He says he’s suffering from serious mental and psychological problems because of the pressure he’s under. He feels trapped.

EB: Do you want to turn off the light? He used to own a car and that’s how he would get around. Today this is his means of transportation. A bike? A bike.

Fouzan lives on the seventh floor of his apartment building. The landlord was supposed to put in an elevator but because no one is paying rent, the only way to get to his flat is by climbing the stairs. Not easy for a chain smoker. I’m visiting the Saleh family with my interpreter Safa Joudeh who attended university in the United States before returning to Gaza a year ago.

Fouzan lives here with his wife, three children and his mother.

Her name is Abu Mahmud Abdulrahman Ayesh. EB: How old are you? 60. EB: You were born here in Gaza? No. She was born in Barbara, which is a Palestinian village from 1948 in Israel. EB: When did you come here for the first time? They came to Gaza in 1948 after Israel bombed the villages, and they’re basically refugees in Gaza.

Ayesh’s life was difficult back then, and her family was poor. Her father died when she was young, so she went to nursing school to help feed her brothers and sisters. She met her future husband at the hospital where she worked. But they didn’t earn enough, so eventually they and their children moved to Saudi Arabia in search of a better future.

Her husband was going to perform the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. While he was on the way with her in the car and their children – some of them in the car and others in a separate car – a young boy, 16 years old, from the royal family hit the car. Her husband died and she sustained very serious wounds, and her son died.

I go with Fouzan out onto the balcony, and he lights up a water pipe. Fouzan says his life changed drastically after the accident. One moment he had a father to care for him and provide everything he needed. Then, he became an orphan. He remembers getting out of the car and seeing his father in the front seat, bleeding. He kept repeating to Fouzan and the rest of his family: “This is God’s will. This is God’s will.” Then, he died. He remembers seeing his twin brother too, his scalp cut off. They are images that he remembers just as clearly today as the day of the accident. They haunt him.

After the accident, says Fouzan, his uncle brought the family back to Gaza. They lived on charity. His school work suffered. But he graduated from high school with good grades, and he got an opportunity to go to college in Germany. His uncle said he couldn’t afford it. So Fouzan started working in his uncle’s factory. Over the years, Fouzan and his younger brother were able to buy sewing machines one at a time. They became independent of their uncle and set up their own factory. It was doing well until the siege started. Then, they lost everything.

It’s very stressful and very emotionally challenging for her to stand by her husband because she feels that she’s the one who needs to be strong and give him all the support. It’s very depressing and upsetting for him that he’s at home doing nothing, and she has to be by his side, try to change his mood, make light of things, make him to feel a bit better. Take him out, take care of the children. And she feels that it’s very stressful for her because she has to bear this responsibility of making sure that everyone else feels good. EB: Why do you feel like you have to be stronger than everyone else in the family? Her husband suffers from a mental condition, from a psychological condition, which has obviously been heightened since the situation became the way it is. He’s always been psychologically not well, but the situation increased a lot more since he stopped working. And so she feels that she must be there for the children, must be there for him because he doesn’t have the capability emotionally to deal with stress. And so he relies on her to do this. And he gives her the authority, he gives her the responsibility of handling all the problems in the home, problems to do with the children, even emotions that arise from the situation being as bad as it is. EB: But that must be quite difficult for you. This has been very tough on her. And this caused her to become depressed, despite that she feels that she has very strong will power. She feels that she’s able to deal with things, face things, and she’s determined to keep going. EB: Are you taking any medication? Are you receiving any type of support to deal with your depression? She receives treatment at the Gaza Mental Health Program. They’ve helped her a lot there in terms of providing psychological support and help, and they have prescribed medication for her, and she continues to take this medication.

Ghada and her husband try to shield their children from their financial and psychological problems, but everyone can feel the growing tension in the house, especially Renda, a shy but clever 14 year old.

She wants to be a doctor, and she wants to grow up to be a good person. EB: What type of doctor would you like to be? She wants to be a psychiatrist. EB: Why? She feels that her mom and dad are going through psychological problems, mental issues, and she would like to understand it more. She feels that her father is a lot angrier in general than he was before. He screams at them a lot. He shouts at them a lot, and her mother, she’s just sad all the time. She’s crying all the time. EB: What does your father scream and yell at you for? Can you give me an example? He doesn’t like noise. If they make one little bit of noise, he’ll scream at them. He likes it to be quiet all the time. EB: Do your parents ever laugh anymore? They do laugh, but not a lot, not as much as before.

She feels that the situation is stressful for everyone, that everyone suffers from this situation. But, at the same time, not a lot of people suffer to the extent that she is suffering. First of all the situation inside the home is the main factor for how unstable she feels. She feels that she is within a big prison, which is Gaza: 1.5 million people do live in that prison. Everyone goes through the same situation, but not everyone has to deal with psychological and mental issues. And she feels that being in this place, being in this home, she’s within another prison that’s within the bigger prison that’s Gaza. She feels that her home is a prison. The lack of freedom that she has within her home, her own home, because she has to share it with someone else. EB: Her mother-in-law? Her mother-in-law.

Her son is embarrassed, shy, humiliated, and he doesn’t like to talk about his situation, but he’s severely depressed. He doesn’t even want to go out and walk in the street, go to the mosque, see anyone. Even if he’s asking anyone for help and assistance, but he has no income. He’s not able to feed his children, and he feels completely and utterly in distress and at a loss. During the last Eid, the Moslem celebration festival, they didn’t have enough money to buy clothes, to buy food, to buy anything, and if it hadn’t been for people who wanted to help them and people who were kind to them and offered assistance them, then they probably wouldn’t have had even anything to eat. EB: Since your son lost their job, how has that affected relations within the family? Is it a lot more tense now? It’s affected everyone. It’s affected the husband who is depressed and takes medication. It’s affected the wife because every time she sees him like this, she gets more and more depressed. Now she’s taking medication. And they don’t like to tell anyone. They don’t know that she knows that they take medication. The little children have been affected by it. It’s humiliating for them having to beg from other people, to use second-hand clothes, second-hand shoes. To go to school in other people’s clothes, and it’s been very difficult on everyone.

Basically not a lot of problems happen between the husband and the wife because she’s always supportive of the husband, and she’s there by his side. But the clashes that do occur occur mostly between her and the mother-in-law or the husband and his mother. An instance of such problems happened recently: the mother gave the son an amount of money that she had to help him out. And then a few days later, she started asking him for the money back, telling him that she keeps on giving and giving, and he doesn’t give anything in return. The children hear all these clashes, hear all these problems and wonder why their grandmother treats her son this way. She doesn’t treat the others in this way. So they’re very frustrated and upset by that.

The mother-in-law is very demanding. She always asks her son to buy groceries, to buy stuff from the market that she knows he can’t afford. When she does give him money to buy something – once in a very long time – she makes sure that he knows and that the children know and that the wife knows that she bought this stuff and that she is providing for them. The children feel upset about this, and the parents feel very shy and embarrassed in front of their children. The children are always wondering why if she’s a member of the family, she makes it a big deal when she does buy something. She feels that they should take care of her, like she takes that for granted.

She feels that there’s lots of problems that she can’t share with her mother because she fears that her mother will be more and more upset. For example, she’s not very comfortable with her grandmother living here. Her grandmother causes a lot of problems for everyone. She’s constantly a cause of trouble and a cause of annoyance for everyone. This is something she can’t tell her mother because her mother is crying all the time, and she doesn’t want her mother to feel worse than she already does. EB: So how do you try to deal with this situation? How do you cope? She cries a lot. She feels that that’s the only thing she can do. She cries a lot. She tells her friends sometimes, but she doesn’t feel she can tell them everything. Do you understand why this is happening to your parents? She feels that the reason for all of this is because her father doesn’t work, because there’s no income. She feels that that’s the main reason. EB: Do you blame him? She feels that it’s not her father’s fault. She doesn’t blame him at all. It’s not his fault. It’s all because of the siege. There’s a lot of tension within the house. EB: Does it make you happy to get out and to go to school, for instance? She goes to school to be with her friends. She spends a lot of time with her friends. She loves her friends, and she just wants to leave home and go to school. She forgets everything when she’s with her friends. She has a lot of fun with them. So it’s a lot better to be out than to be here.

Her father agrees. To escape the prison within the prison, he spends all day in his garden. He’s made a bed here, using a table, a chair and a few pillows. The pillows are the ones his workers used to sit on when they were working. When did you make the bed? He made this bed when he stopped working so he could sleep and forget everything, to escape the pressures inside his home and relax a bit. But at the end of the day, he knows that he has to go back inside and face his family. The pressure always comes back.

When I ask him if he feels he’s failed as a husband and as a father, he agrees. Since the siege began, he explains, he’s turned from being a businessman to a beggar. He feels that there is a lot of pressure on him all the time, and he simply can’t face his family.

EB: So, who is this? My son, Ibneh.

As we leave the garden, we meet Fouzan’s 8-year-old son. He has hearing problems, Fouzan tells me. They were able to buy a hearing aid, but they can’t afford the other. The clothes his son is wearing are last year’s clothes, and Fouzan wasn’t able to afford a new backpack for school.

EB: Are either of you earning money at the moment or is there no money at all? No one’s earning money. EB: Are you having to scrimp on the meals? They have to make do with two meals a day, either breakfast and lunch or lunch and dinner. Most of the time, they don’t have breakfast. When the children go to school, they have to give them sandwiches to go to school and then they have dinner after that, supper after that. And that’s the only meals they get a day. EB: Are you and the children going hungry? During the month of Ramadan, they received a lot of aid, a lot of charity from people, which is the custom in Ramadan, so they’re able to provide their family with meat, bread. Now they would not hold back money to buy food for their children even if they really needed the money. So they’re spending the money at the moment, and they do provide meat for their children. EB: And then afterwards? They don’t know what they are going to do after that.

She can’t offer emotional help or support for her children. She’s been through so much, and she’s had such a hard life that she feels she has nothing to give. She cries all day. The only years of her life that she was happy is the few years she spent with her husband before he died. But other than that, she feels that at this point her emotional situation, her mental situation is worse than that of her children. And so she does not have the ability to provide them with support. EB: Do you feel like taking medication also? She takes a lot of painkillers. When it comes to her emotional state of being, she doesn’t feel that she needs medication because she can bear it all, these emotions. EB: Do you have any hope that this suffering is going to end? She hopes that the situation will change soon. She has put all her faith and her hope in God. She doesn’t care for herself, but it devastates her when one of her grandchildren asks her son for money or for pocket money and the son isn’t able to provide it. That completely devastates her. She can’t really support the child or the father because she’s so devastated herself. All she feels she can do at this point is cry.

EB: It’s often said that people need hope to carry on. Do you still have hope? It’s not an option for her to give up hope because she has children. She’s responsible for her home, for her children, for her husband. So when she does lose hope, she has to recharge that hope in any way shape or form. EB: How do you find that hope again? She goes out looking for work a lot. And she goes out to any organization that provides help and assistance for people in her situation. She won’t sit at home doing nothing. She will continue looking for a job, looking for help. She feels that she has enough faith in God to enable her to continue to hope that she will find something. Her mother has always taught her that if you have very strong faith, if you pray to God and ask him to provide you with something better than your situation, and if you read the Qu’ran, then hopefully God will answer your prayers and answer your wishes. That’s what she relies on to keep her going.

The next day, I went back to see them. After lunch, Fouzan and I left the prison within the prison and went to one of his favorite places: a beach a few hundred meters from his house.

Fuzan tells me he likes to come here to escape all the troubles at home, the troubles in his life. He likes to come here to relax and clear his mind. The beach, he says, is the only place he feels free. The occupation has left nothing beautiful or enjoyable in Gaza. The beach is the only pleasurable thing we have, and that’s from God. The sea is from God. The Israelis can’t take that away from us.

EB: Today you look much happier than yesterday. Yesterday you looked like you were quite depressed. Do you have good days and bad days? Fouzan says he feels a little lighter than he did yesterday because he received some help from family members and others. He was able to go out to the market and buy fruits, vegetables, stationery and school books for his children. He was also happy to have someone to talk to, someone to listen to him. Fuzan says he can talk to his wife, but he can’t tell her everything. The only person who is always there for him is his counselor at the Gaza Community Mental Health Program. The counselor knows his feelings, thoughts, anxieties. He can tell him everything. He tells him he doesn’t feel like a man anymore because he can’t provide for his family. All of his problems, says Fouzan, can be traced back to the siege. He’s young. He’s strong. He used to work a lot and help people who couldn’t earn a living. Now, he’s the one who depends on others because he can’t work. He sits in his garden, feeling more and more depressed by the day.

Two months after I last saw Fouzan, Israel launched an offensive against Gaza. After a unilateral ceasefire was declared on January 18th, I called Fouzan. He told me his family was safe. The Israelis had dropped leaflets in the area, and his family had fled the neighborhood. Their apartment building was severely damaged by Israeli rocket fire. The factory and remaining sewing machines were destroyed, as was his garden. Fouzan’s family is now living with his wife’s relatives. He returns to his home everyday to mourn what he’s lost, he says. Israeli gunboats patrol the coast and sometimes fire at people there, so he can no longer escape to the beach.