Ihsan Redwan poses for a photo
PALESTINE – September 30 2020

Former SOS mother cares for families in Gaza

In 1987, Ihsan Redwan became an SOS mother in Bethlehem. Today, she is the family strengthening coordinator in Gaza, supporting thousands of Palestinian children and their families.

Ihsan started working with SOS Children’s Villages in 1987, first as an SOS mother in Bethlehem, and later as the family strengthening coordinator who started the program in the Gaza strip. For 33 years, Ihsan has supported thousands of children and their families in Palestine. 

Can you please describe the work you do with families?

In the family strengthening program, we work with children, their parents or guardians and with the community-based organizations. We offer different services for each of these participants.

First, I would like to talk about the families we work with. These families are supported based on their poverty level, as it is a condition from which most people in Gaza suffer from, as well as on indicators that show there is a high risk of family separation due to physical and mental health issues.

Once we do our initial assessment for each family, we provide them with specific services based on the gaps we have identified. The services could be medical care, food, education, awareness sessions, psychological support for both children and parents, capacity building in parenting and income generating activities for parents.

For our projects’ implementation, we collaborate with community-based organizations. We assess their needs and offer them tailor-made services to help them better serve families. Our goal is to help them become strong enough so that they become independent and able to take on the role of working with the families after our partnership ends. 

What makes your work in Gaza most challenging?

Gaza has challenges that many countries do not experience. They are related to the political situation and its economic and social effects.

The economy in Gaza is very weak and the unemployment rate is one of the highest worldwide. The blockade we live under makes it very difficult for families to generate income. For instance, not all raw material is available in Gaza and with the shortage in electricity, it is difficult for people to use the sewing machines or other tools they need for their projects. In addition, marketing the projects is difficult. Once we did an exposition of handicraft products but we could not sell anything because people in Gaza do not have the means to buy them, and they would rather buy life essentials. These projects need to be marketed outside the Gaza strip but due to the blockade, products cannot get out.

We also have challenges related to traditions that may harm children and women. Issues of child marriage and the stigma of divorced women living back with their families take a lot of time to address because they are anchored in society.

Our economic situation required NGOs deal with Gaza as an emergency area for many years. Therefore, they always provide relief and aid which can create a culture of dependency. In the family strengthening program, we encourage the opposite for people. We want them to be self-reliant and able to fulfil their children’s needs themselves. People’s expectations towards NGOs is also a cultural aspect we are fighting.  

How are you able to work amid the restrictions on Gaza?

The blockade of Gaza and the restrictions put on its people have an even more severe impact on the families taking part in our program because they already live in very difficult conditions. They suffer from severe poverty, psychological issues and the feeling of being neglected by society.

To make our work possible, we work with the people directly and collaborate with community-based organizations, NGOs and other partners. Offering trainings and helping them gain skills enhance their self-confidence and make them more resilient to face life’s difficulties.

In addition, the psychological support we provide is one of the most important pillars that help them face their problems.

It is also important for them to meet other families. In that moment they realize that other people live the same difficulties as they do, it motivates them to hear from those who joined the program before them and succeeded.

Since you have worked in Gaza for more than 15 years, can you tell us about your experience working during the armed conflicts in the area?

There were different wars since I started working in Gaza: 2008, 2010 and 2014. I remember that right before the start of one of them, we were holding our usual meeting with around 15 women and some of their children. Suddenly, around 11 am, air strikes started and the war broke out. It felt like the end of the world: children running and crying, rocket attacks, the sound of buildings collapsing. It was terrible. At that time, the most important thing for me was to make sure mothers and children got back safely to their homes. When everybody left, I went back home amid the bombings. I did not think I would arrive home safely.

What are you proud of the most in your work?

After 33 years of helping others, I am now famous in the community for being a person who lends a hand to those who need it, which is nice but at the same time difficult when I feel unable to solve all the problems.

We have many success stories where we have helped children and families change their lives. This makes me feel that all these years of work have had positive results. Many families were about to collapse but we could intervene to keep them together.

Can you tell us one of those sucess stories? 

I remember a woman who told us in the beginning that she just needed the means to eat. She was enrolled in the program, and she took different psychological sessions and trainings. The day she became independent and ready to leave the program, she said, “I have no words to thank you enough because we have always been receiving support but it never changed us the way you did. I was strong on the inside and you helped me to tap into this strength".

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