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Resort city becomes refuge

[Lebanon] Ludmila Rosenfeld and her two children sheltering in Goldwater High School in Eilat. [Date picture taken: 08/01/2006]
Ludmila Rosenfeld and her two children sheltering in Goldwater High School, Eilat. (Tom Spender/IRIN)

"I feel like a refugee," said Israeli Genia Ben Noon, as her three young children ran noisily at her feet in the crowded school building that has become the family’s home.

Like the 400 other Israelis sleeping in classrooms in Eilat's Goldwater High School – an estimated 250 of them children – Ben Noon and her family have fled to the extreme south of Israel to get away from the barrage of rockets fired into the north by Hezbollah.

Conflict between Israel and Hezbollah began three weeks ago when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and the Israelis retaliated with air strikes into Lebanon. Since then, thousands of Lebanese and Israelis have been displaced.

Eilat is a resort town usually known for sun and fun, on the Red Sea's Gulf of Aqaba at the tip of the Negev Desert, between the borders of Egypt and Jordan. Now its has become one of the main destinations for thousands of Israelis escaping the attacks on cities in northern Israel such as Haifa and Kiryat Shmona.

At the high school displaced families sleep on donated mattresses, about 30 to each classroom. Their belongings are piled nearby in plastic shopping bags. Children run through the school's cavernous corridors while groups of bored adults sit watching television near trays of biscuits donated by Eilat residents.

"It's difficult to live at home when you can't go out to get food, everywhere is closed, it's dangerous and the children are afraid,” said Ben Noon, 40. “So we came to Eilat.”

At first the family spent three days on the beach in a tent, she said. “But it's not good with small children because it's very hot and one of my boys became sick.”

The situation at the school is not ideal, Ben Noon said. "It's difficult here. Everybody is on top of everyone else, there are children screaming all the time, there are very few bathrooms for everyone. But we want to say a big thanks to Eilat, because we have nowhere else to go."

Population has doubled

Most displaced Israelis are believed to have fled to live with relatives a safe distance from Lebanon in cities such as Tel Aviv.

But Eilat has seen a massive influx. The Municipality of Eilat estimates the resort town's population has risen from 55,000 to 100,000.

“A hundred thousand is a lot, but Eilat is used to it,” said Dana Zenati, spokeswoman for the Mayor of Eilat’s office. “Every summer we see a lot of people come here.”

Displaced families are setting up their tents on the beaches and filling the city’s 13,000 hotel rooms until their money runs out, when they turn to the Goldwater High School or city residents who offer them a place to sleep on their floors and sofas.

Resident Ilana Brami, 58, has 24 people staying with her - three families, as well as children whose parents have remained in Haifa to work.

Brami sleeps on the floor of her living room to make space for a family of four in her bedroom, while her daughter has moved in with a friend to give her room over to a family of six.

With tears in her eyes, Brami said, "They have nothing at all – not even milk for their babies - so I get it for them. I don't have a lot of money but I can't leave them with nowhere to go. This is our country and we have to do it."

The city plans to open another school building to take in up to 1,000 more displaced people, said Amira Edri, the head of Eilat's volunteer unit set up to manage the response to the crisis. But Edri said there are only so many people the city can take.

"Over the last two weeks thousands and thousands more people have called up asking if they can come to the school,” she said. "We are managing for now. But Eilat cannot take them all. Everyone I know has people in their homes and the beaches and hotels are full. In all my life I have never seen the city like this.”

Many have run out of money

Edri’s volunteers give the displaced Israelis mattresses, blankets and towels and negotiate reduced rates for meals in nearby restaurants. They also organise social workers and psychologists for those who have been left traumatised by their experiences.

"We have found people crying, people telling us about the minute they actually saw the rocket fall,” Edri said. “They are afraid; they can't sleep."

"These people's biggest problem is economic – they haven't been working for three weeks,” Edri said. “Many thought the situation would only last a few days, they spent all their money in the hotels and now they have nothing."

Ludmila Rosenfeld's husband has returned to Kiryat Atta near Haifa for a few days to work. The family came to Eilat after spending the first week of the hostilities living in a public bomb shelter.

The 34-year-old mother of two said, "We really have very little money left. I only worked for a week in July, and I don't know if the government will pay our wages for the time we have been in the shelters and here."

Rosenfeld and the others will be able to stay in the school until 1 September, when the Israeli school year begins. The municipality is making plans to accommodate them in unused school buildings if the crisis is not resolved by then. Plans are also being made to absorb displaced children into local schools.

Zohar Briton, a 17-year-old from Haifa sitting on her mattress on the floor, said simply, "We have no choice. We will stay here until the war ends – and we have no idea how long that will be."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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