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ISRAEL

Occupational hazards: sick kids cross Israel border for medical care

By: Gareth Andrews- The Sydney Morning Herald


Imagine this. You have a child with leukaemia and you live in the Gaza Strip. Israel is right next door and they will have a cure: but Gaza is ‘enemy territory’. Imagine finding three permits to get to Israel.

Imagine having to stay with your child for up to six months while they receive the treatment, away from family and friends and not being able to leave the hospital campus for “security reasons”. Imagine you’re facing a doctor who can only advise you in Hebrew or English – neither of which you can speak.

Imagine the mountainous costs, thousands of dollars to save your child, but your husband, the only family breadwinner, earns just $400 per month as a part-time construction worker. You can’t afford a taxi from the checkpoint to the hospital.

And just imagine that no one really cared about any of these scenarios.

Now imagine that someone, somewhere, did care. And then did something about it. That someone was Melburnian Ron Finkel.

Finkel set up Project Rozana, a multi-faith initiative that raises funds to treat seriously ill Palestinian children from the West Bank and Gaza at Israeli hospitals. I had come with other directors of Project Rozana to see the program in action.

Hadassah Hospital’s Ein Kerem campus on the western edge of Jerusalem is bursting at the seams, trying to meet the medical needs of 2017 based on 2007 planning. Yet at Hadassah, and many other hospitals in Israel, children from both the occupied West Bank and Gaza are treated with the best care available.

As I walked through Hadassah’s paediatric departments, I saw people spilling out of everywhere – children, parents, medicos, nurses, carers and translators. Headscarves and flowing dresses sit alongside the sombre garb of Ultra-Orthodox Jews. Treatment may not be a quick fix, and during this time Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza are thrown together for the first time.

Parents share their concerns with other parents. They all want their children to get well. In a nutshell, that’s it.

Professor Michael Weintraub, Head of the Department of Paediatric Haemato-Oncology at Hadassah, sees all of this.

“I return home every day after constant problems and the resultant pressures and feel all the better for having done it.”

Weintraub is an important advocate for the capacity of medicine to provide a path to better understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. A good man.

The walls between the occupied territories and Israel are both physical and psychological. But with the best of goodwill, it happens. We went to the infamous Erez checkpoint, the northern crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel.

The Palestinian kids and their carers – mothers, grandmothers and occasionally fathers – emerge from the Israeli border control after already enduring a journey across Gaza, and then passing through Hamas border control, and then Palestinian Authority control, before passing through to Israel.

And then a wonderful thing happens. They meet volunteers from the Road To Recovery.

It was established 10 years ago by a remarkable man, Yuval Roth. In 1993, his brother Udi was murdered by Hamas terrorists. Later he met a Palestinian who had suffered a similar loss. Yuval realised they were both humans at heart and even though his brother had been killed, “the terrorists hadn’t been able to kill my heart or my soul”.

Each morning he joins a group of Israeli volunteers at one of three checkpoints to the West Bank and Gaza. These remarkable people, 1000 strong, use their own cars to make about 100 trips daily to the key hospitals able to provide pediatric care.

It was at Erez that we met some of these volunteers. It was early and they had already been on the road for some time to get to the checkpoint. They had few details and had to wait patiently until they sighted a “possibility” –perhaps a six-year-old with his grandmother. The name was checked. They had connected.

Vivian Silver was one such volunteer. Why does she do it? “Just as long as you feel you’ve been doing good, it doesn’t matter how small the action might seem.”

Back in the hospitals we hear more. Health workers at all levels dissociate themselves from the conflict which rules the airwaves in this region. They just get on with their jobs. They shut out the noise. They are more interested in practising their skills and providing hope.

Yes, running these programs costs money. Important funding comes from the Palestinian Authority, although it’s never fully predictable. But at the hospitals themselves, no one desperately in need of help will be turned away.

Project Rozana is an important part of the money chain. We fill in where we see gaps. Putting petrol in the cars of some of the volunteers. Making sure important connections are occurring between health authorities on both sides of the wall and between east Jerusalem and Israel.

Beyond making direct financial contributions to this wonderful story, Rozana is reaching out in other areas of support. More translators are needed in the hospitals to make sure the right decisions are being made and are understood.

Palestinian surgeons and other medical staff are now being “upskilled” in Israeli hospitals so they can bring this new knowledge back to their own people. Not only that, they develop professional relationships for the future. Physicians in the occupied Territories are now getting second opinions on medical problems via WhatsApp from their Israeli counterparts. Part of this funding comes from Rozana.

Rozana at its core is all about empowerment. We are not out to make a point. We are just dealing with people and delivering outcomes. We went to the West Bank to see whether these programs really work. Ramallah is the bustling de facto heart of the Palestinian Authority and lies only 10 kilometres from Jerusalem. But it could be a world away.

It had been arranged that we meet three families who had benefited from the medical treatment. An interpreter had been arranged but was hardly needed. The children were happy and healthy and their parent or parents were relieved and thankful.

Their journeys to Israel had started with fear and apprehension – fear as to their children’s future wellbeing and apprehension as to how the Israelis would treat them.

But the love of their children overcame their fear and their children’s recovery meant that their enemies became their helpers, if not quite their friends. They were effusive when they spoke about the Road to Recovery volunteers. They had gone back to their communities to tell different stories than the ones they had been taught about Israelis.

They had spent enough time in the wards to discover they spoke a common language – the language of parenting, the language of family, the language of love and life.