One man’s struggle to heal Gaza’s children

Palestinian doctor who lost three daughters in previous Gaza war is fighting to bring 100 wounded kids to Canada.

Izzeldin Abuelaish's three daughters and a niece were killed in an Israeli air strike in 2009 [Jet Belgraver]

Toronto, Canada – Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish is a man on a mission. He wants to bring 100 wounded children from Gaza to Canada for medical treatment. The idea came to him while watching images on television of the Israeli bombings in Gaza this past summer, which he said broke his heart.

The scenes brought back gut-wrenching memories of his three daughters and a niece who were killed in a previous war in Gaza. “I see in these children, my daughters,” Abuelaish told Al Jazeera, his eyes moist with tears. “We need to help them, to heal them, not to be disabled. I want the voices of these children to be heard.”

His own story is both heartbreaking and inspiring. Born and raised in the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza, he worked hard to get through medical school and spent years working in the occupied territories, Israel, and abroad as an obstetrician/gynaecologist, specialising in infertility treatment.  

Abuelaish first came to the world’s attention during the 2008-09 Israeli assault on Gaza. In the afternoon of January 16, an Israeli air strike hit his home, crashing into his children’s bedroom. Three of his daughters Bessan, Mayar, and Aya – aged 21, 15 and 14 – and his 17-year-old niece Noor were killed instantly. He described the tragedy in his moving memoir, I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey.

I realised the explosion had come from my daughters' bedroom…The sight in front of me was something I hope no other person ever has to witness … the body parts of my daughters and niece.

by - Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish

“There was a monstrous explosion… I realised the explosion had come from my daughters’ bedroom…The sight in front of me was something I hope no other person ever has to witness … the body parts of my daughters and niece.”

Driven by rage and grief, he called his friend Shlomi Eldar, an Israeli journalist who works for Israel’s Channel 10, who happened to be in studio taking the news to air. Eldar decided to take the call live. The audio of a clearly distraught, weeping Abuelaish, pleading for help, went out over the airwaves and suddenly, gave Israeli viewers a Palestinian voice on the deadly cost of war.

Heal 100 kids

Fast forward several years and you’ll find Abuelaish far away from the Gaza Strip, in a sunny office in Toronto where the walls are plastered with photos of his children and numerous awards. These days he’s an associate professor in global health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. He launched a foundation, Daughters for Life, in memory of his children.

It offers education scholarships for girls and women in the Middle East – regardless of their religious affiliation. But watching the latest conflict unfold on TV last month, Abuelaish felt compelled to help. Almost overnight he drafted a plan and created HEAL100KIDS, which would see 100 wounded Palestinian children come to Canada for treatment. Several other countries have already taken in Palestinians wounded from the recent conflict, Turkey and Venezuela among them.

His plan quickly got the support of several prominent hospitals and healthcare organisations in the province, including the Ontario provincial Health Minister Eric Hoskins. “I believe that we have a moral responsibility to, when asked, step up to provide what assistance we can … and will use the expertise of Ontario’s medical system to support the kids who need our help.”

‘Victims of Hamas’

Bernie Farber, the former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress and a close friend of Abuelaish, said: “Any initiative that reaches out and attempts to make this world a better place is an initiative we should all get behind.”

But he’s also aware of the difficulties. “It will require a lot of patience and require a lot of research to ensure that those coming here are legitimate,” said Farber.

But the biggest challenge remains convincing the Canadian government to issue the necessary visitor visas. While officials have said they are exploring options on how best to deploy Canadian medical workers to Gaza as a more viable alternative, the administration of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has also made it clear whom it considers responsible for the suffering of the Palestinian people – “the international terrorist group Hamas”. Harper has always been unequivocal about Canada’s steadfast support for Israel.

Adam Hodge, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, told Al Jazeera while the government applauds “the humanitarian instincts of those who want to assist victims of Hamas”, it also considers it important that the injured receive that support close to their families and loved ones, and that includes “avoiding medical risks and dangers of being transported overseas”.

It will require a lot of patience and require a lot of research to ensure that those coming here are legitimate.

by - Bernie Farber, Canadian Jewish Congress

‘Children are hope’

Abuelaish insisted he would only select those patients who would be stable enough to travel, and would never endanger any patients by moving them.

He also questioned whether it would be safe to send Canadian medical help to Gaza instead citing concerns about Gaza’s infrastructure, which was heavily damaged by Israeli shelling this summer. Access to basics such as water and electricity remain unreliable there, which would impact the quality of treatment in local clinics.

Abuelaish has witnessed the damage for himself. In late August, he went to Gaza for the first time in a year. That included an emotional visit to the graves of his daughters. He also retrieved a doll and a damaged mobile phone that belonged to the girls. With these physical reminders of his loss, he came back even more determined to do his part and help the victims of war.

“As a father and a physician, despite the pain I have witnessed and experienced, I do not give up hope,” he wrote in a recent op-ed in the Toronto Star.

“As long as the patient is alive, as the wounded children in Gaza are, hope is part of a physician’s job. Healthcare has the potential to be a catalyst in the peace process, to remind us of our shared humanity, the preciousness of life and the possibility of salvation.”

In addition to his HEAL100KIDS proposal, there are several other petitions circulating to gather signatures and urge the Canadian government to support the idea. However, so far, there is little sign of that. To date, Abuelaish has received no clear commitment from the government regarding his proposal to help the wounded children of Gaza.

But he said he hopes to have a chance to appeal to Prime Minister Harper in person and address members of parliament during the fall session. Abuelaish said he wants to try to persuade Harper that this is not about politics – it is about children.  

“Children are hope, they are the beauty of life. They are the future,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera