As the bombing started, Odai couldn’t hear the danger
One year ago, the conflict that gripped Gaza during the summer of 2014 was just beginning. Odai Ali, 21, was at home helping on the family cattle farm, as he used to do most days.
Odai outside in the yard, with the family farm behind him. Gaza. | © Tom Shelton / Handicap International
Odai had a difficult childhood. As a baby, he was struck by a fever (possibly meningitis) that left him unable to hear and affected both his physical and intellectual development. At around four years old, his condition slowly started to improve and he began to walk.
Odai started learning sign language at a special school in Gaza. But he didn’t get far - aged 10, he developed severe epilepsy. The young boy dropped out of school and began working on the family farm. He enjoyed the work and, with treatment, his epilepsy improved.
As he grew older, Odai became well-known by many people in the community and had an active life.
His father, Abu Abdullah, explains, “Odai greets all the neighbours when he is down in the street, both old and young people. In the area where we live, they are not underestimating people with disabilities. He participates in all activities, in all occasions.”
“He is not an outdoor man but he likes to go to the sea. In the summer he goes twice a week. He likes the sea very much, he spends a long time there. Last summer it was a war and we couldn’t enjoy the sea. We plan to take him this summer, we will try.”
Tragedy struck the family
On 10th July 2014, in the first few days of the war that gripped Gaza last summer, tragedy struck the family. The sound of shelling came closer but, due to his hearing impairment, Odai didn’t know that he was in danger.
His father Abu Abdullah describes the scene: “When the bombing happened, Odai was here in the yard giving water to the cows. The explosion uprooted him 5 metres in the air and he fell back down on the ground. He was thrown over here by this palm tree.”
Odai’s grandmother, Amna Ali, remembers the fear and confusion. “When I heard the shelling I thought it was my son because Odai was wearing his father’s jacket. Then I realized it was Odai.”
The bombing injured two other farm workers and blew apart the cattle sheds, leaving a massive crater. Abu Adbullah sighs, “The farm was fully destroyed. 1,200m2 were fully destroyed. Even all the animals died.”
“We took Odai to the hospital. They only found a head injury – they provided him with first aid for this. But before he was discharged, we realised that he couldn’t stand. He couldn’t walk. They immediately transferred him to intensive care.”
The family were devastated. A spinal cord injury had left Odai paralysed from the waist down and in desperate need of support. But, with the conflict escalating, it was difficult and dangerous to access health services.
Traumatised by the bombing
Handicap International’s team in Gaza took immediate action to respond to the crisis, sending out mobile rehabilitation teams during periods of ceasefire. Odai was visited by Baytouna, one of our local partner organisations in Gaza, who offered him rehabilitation sessions and psychological support and started to visit him regularly. He was also given an anti-bedsore mattress, a wound kit, diapers and a wheelchair to help with his recovery.
Traumatised by the bombing, Odai didn’t accept treatment at first even though he was in dire need of help. But the physiotherapists persisted, working to prevent complications with his injury and to improve his posture and the positioning of his legs.
Odai also suffers from bedsores. His father changes the dressings for him but the treatment takes time. There are many things that he needs on a daily basis – medications, antibiotics, diapers, catheters. Some of these are distributed free of charge by local organisations, but many items are in short supply and it is very expensive for the family to buy them.
As well as his physical injuries, Odai was badly affected psychologically. He is still scared to go back to the farm, which is just behind the family home.
His father Abu Abdullah explains, “He knows what happened to him - that’s why he doesn’t like going out on the farm. If the family spends a lot of time with the cows, he might think to join us, but he won’t go alone to the farm. After the injury he even refused to come out of the back door to sit here in the yard. But now gradually he will come back to the farm sometimes.”
Through his father, we ask Odai if he likes working on the farm. Odai replies in signs: “There was a bombing there.” His father makes more signs: “Do you want to milk the cows? Do you want to feed the cows or sweep the farm?”
Odai replies, “No, I was injured. There were bombings.” He shows a shrapnel injury on his wrist.
Psychologists not experienced in supporting people with disabilities
Odai has his own basic signs to describe the war: pointing with a finger means shooting, opening his hand towards the floor means shelling.
Outside of the family, Odai’s communication is extremely limited. He cannot hear or speak, and does not use sign language well. This makes it very difficult to provide him with psychological support.
In general, psychologists in Gaza are not experienced in supporting people with disabilities and don’t know sign language. In Odai’s case, his support team have found ways to work with him through his family members, but it remains a big challenge.
His father Abu Abdullah explains, “His voice is through me. I am his voice, and so is his mother.”
He continues, “Odai faced psychological problems after the shelling. Sometimes he refuses to go out and makes a sign for shelling. In the winter also he feels scared when there is thunder and lightning. He can’t tell the difference between that and a bombing. If he is afraid he curls up and asks us to leave the room. We take him out onto the balcony and show him that it’s just the weather, then we close the doors and curtains and let him sleep.”
You can tell that Odai is really loved by his family, especially his grandma, Amna Ali. Before the bombing, Odai always used to have breakfast with her in her flat on the ground floor. Sadly, he is now unable to get down the three flights of stairs without help.
A strong and animated character, Amna Ali exclaims, “Odai is a minister and we are his servants! All the family love him and support him. We don’t want him to be angry. A lot of the time he feels upset and aggressive and we don’t want him to be like this so we try anything to satisfy him.”
Odai’s father continues, “We don’t leave him alone – he usually has some family support at home. His sister spends the evening beside him, or his brother or mother. He doesn’t sit alone, only when he’s sleeping. That’s because he can’t communicate with people by mobile, only with sign language (face to face). That’s why we spend time with him. We spend all day and night with him.”
After the end of the crisis in Gaza, Odai was referred to two other local organisations to ensure his care continued. But he is still a priority case and Handicap International intends to support him further. He is still in need of physiotherapy and his family need more training to help him transfer between his bed and wheelchair. He has the ability to become more independent in his daily life, so an occupational therapist has a big role to play in his future.