In 2006, Mutussam Abu Karsh was playing soccer in the northern Gaza Strip when an Israeli tank shell exploded, ripping his leg and part of his hand from his body. He was eight years old.
A few years earlier, three-year-old Yasmeen Najjar was playing outside her family's house near Nablus in the West Bank when she was struck by an Israeli army vehicle. Her right leg was later amputated above the knee.
Yet last month, despite their injuries, Yasmeen and Mutussam - now 17 and 16 years old respectively - became the first Arab amputees ever to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, conquering Africa's highest peak after a gruelling eight-day trek. "It was a feeling of great pride and victory," said Yasmeen afterwards.
The climb of hope, led by Dubai mountaineer Suzanne al-Houby and organised by the non-profit Palestinian Children's Relief Fund (PCRF), was made to raise funds to provide medical care for Syrian children and bring awareness of the plight of injured children throughout the Middle East.
Speaking to Al Jazeera this week, Mutussam said: "I was very happy [at the summit]. I had a strange feeling of great accomplishment to represent my homeland Palestine, and to help the Palestinian and Syrian children."
PCRF was founded during the first intifada, and provides advanced medical care for injured children such as Mutussam and Yasmeen. It has sent more than 1,000 children from Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria to receive medical care around the world, and tens of thousands more have been treated inside the occupied Palestinian territories.
The hike up the Tanzanian mountain was conceived as a response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, where, according to a recent UN report, more than 10,000 children have been killed and countless more injured.
I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro because I want to inspire others that no matter what happens, you can do anything you want in your life.
"We feel obliged to provide services to Palestinian refugee and Syrian children, but because of the security situation we cannot send missions into Syria," said Steve Sosebee, PCRF's founder. "This trip is in part about raising money to treat those Syrian and refugee children coming into Lebanon and Jordan, where we can provide care." The trip also had a larger mission of providing a message of hope for Palestinians and a sense of unity in a region embroiled in violence.
The idea for the trek came from Houby, a Palestinian born in Dubai who is the first Arab woman to have climbed Mount Everest. She wanted to bring a boy and girl from both Palestinian territories to "present a message of solidarity - not just to Palestinians but to the larger Arab world", she told Al Jazeera from her office in Dubai. "I really wanted representation from the inside, from the West Bank and occupied territories. It's a powerful metaphor: a boy from Gaza and a girl from the West Bank climbing to help Syrian children. It shows Arab children they can do anything."
The trek up Kilimanjaro takes seven to nine days, and fewer than half of climbers reach the 5,895-metre summit. For Yasmeen and Mutussam, climbing with prosthetic limbs provided a unique set of challenges. "Yasmeen is an an above-the-knee amputee and lacks good tissue between her bone and skin," said Sosebee. "The constant impact creates a lot of pressure and some pain."
Mutussam's difficulties were as much political as physical, as the movement restrictions imposed upon Palestinians in the besieged coastal territory made it extremely difficult for the teenager to leave.
According to Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem, Israel has almost completely severed the Gaza Strip from the West Bank. It is difficult for Gazans to go abroad, and many have been denied permission to exit altogether.
"Gazans can only leave through Egypt, but as you know the border is closed," said Sosabee. "To go through Israel he had to first get security clearance, a permit from the Jordanians, and a visa from the United Arab Emirates, all of which are extremely difficult for Palestinians to get. He then had to fly to Dubai because the UAE is the only place the Tanzanian visa could be issued. When he got off the plane we realised his visa was issued in his mother's name. And when he finally arrived in Tanzania his luggage was lost. It was a disaster of an experience."
But aside from Mutussam's late arrival, the climb itself went smoothly. The group even finished one day ahead of schedule.
Houby recalled the emotional moment when the two teenagers approached the top of the mountain, "When Yasmeen and Mutussam saw the summit, their faces lit up. Yasmeen, exhausted as she was, ran up and hugged me. Her whole body was shaking, and she was sobbing loudly, tears of happiness. For Muttusam, you know, boys from Gaza don't cry. He's a tough boy. But you could see it in his face."
Yasmeen and Mutussam are not alone in their injuries. According to Ayed Abu Eqtaish, accountability director for Defence of Children International, 1,400 children have been killed by Israeli soldiers or settlers since the year 2000.
Providing medical care for children affected by the ongoing violence is difficult in the West Bank, where an elaborate system of movement restrictions imposed by Israel since the early 2000s have had a major impact on health conditions and the ability to provide services in the territory. The health situation in the enclosed Gaza Strip is even worse.
Yet regardless of the challenges faced by children from the Palestinian territories to Syria, the climb provided a message of hope.
"I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro because I want to inspire others," said Mutussam. "That no matter what happens, you can do anything you want in your life".
Source: Al Jazeera