By Nick Cooper
Since 1991, The Palestine Children’s Relief Fund has been taking on the medical challenges of young people in the Middle East. It focuses on children who need specialized surgery that can’t be provided for them locally. PCRF runs 70 to 80 volunteer surgical missions to the Middle East each year, as well as flying children to other countries for surgeries. To date, the PCRF has arranged over 10,000 surgeries, of which over 1,000 have been abroad. Many of the children have been injured as a result of war or ongoing occupation in their homelands, and PCRF also provides care in the areas of cardiac, orthopedic, ophthalmic, urologic, maxillofacial, and neurological surgery, and earlier this year opened the first public cancer department for children in Palestine (named in honor of Huda Al Masri, PCRF’s lead social worker who passed away from leukemia in 2009).
Dr. Greg Stocks has been on two medical missions with PCRF to Ramallah in the West Bank of Palestine doing knee replacements. He says of his visits, “I have not run across a person that I have come to help, or in restaurants and hotels that wasn’t kind, friendly, helpful and appreciative. It was a great experience for me, and my son who came after 8th and 9th grade. I find the service gratifying. The doctors there are capable and eager to learn. They were appreciative of the American ideas, methods, and technology we were able to bring.”
When asked about the conditions of occupation, he responded, “They’re working under harsh circumstances with limited access to resources due to the Israeli control over their lives. Palestinians I have come to know, deal with and bear with a patience and dignity that come from a deeper source than I think I would have.”
When asked how he has been treated by Israeli authorities when traveling, he answered, “I have been treated well by the Israeli authorities. However, Irene Abdo, an O.R. nurse from Methodist, and of Palestinian heritage, was stopped at passport control and interrogated for almost two hours. One of her bags went missing. It contained items she brought for an orphanage in Bethlehem, for the children there. It turned up later as we were trying to leave the country. . .We hear from the local Palestinians that those type of unexplained occurrences seem to happen frequently. I found it an embarrassing and humiliating experience to put her through.”
Rania Awwad has been volunteering for PCRF since 2000, when she was living in Washington, DC. She co-founded the DC chapter, and the Houston chapter when she moved here in 2008.
She recently spoke about some of the experiences and successes of PCRF in an interview. There are success stories, like the “boy who came to DC from Gaza in 2003 at the age of 14 to treat an aneurysm caused by shrapnel in his chest, is married with two children. Before the PCRF arranged his surgery, he was not expected to survive more than a few months.” Also, there are tragedies: “One of the very first children to be helped by the PCRF was brought to Ohio for orthopedic surgery in 1990, and three years later was killed in Hebron.”
Awwad explained that the president and CEO, Steve Sosebee, usually gets extra scrutiny when he travels to the US (he lives in Ramallah), in addition to the usual scrutiny of his work in Palestine by Israeli authorities.
Ayah Aqra, 15, from the West Bank, Palestine, who received a prosthetic leg at Houston Shriners Hospital in August spoke about the PCRF experience over Facebook,
“I heard about the PCRF through another family in my village whose child was treated by the organization. I visited with the social worker and was examined before my case was referred abroad for possible treatment. I came to Houston, Texas in August and received a prosthetic leg and rehabilitation for free. I was born with a birth defect that led to amputation, so I was able to walk for the first time in my life in Houston thanks to the generosity of people there. In my village, there is not much to do except go to school and spend time with my family and friends. Throughout my life, since childhood, it was very hard for me to even do simple things like go out with my friends because I had only one working leg. Now I am able to do everything they do.”
What did you think about the U.S. and Texas?
“Houston and the generous people who helped me there-the prosthetic specialist who built my leg (Erin O’Brien), my loving host family (Insherah Ashour and family), and all the volunteers who supported me-will always have a special place in my heart forever. I will always be in debt for what they did for me.”
Mohammed Jamous, 16, from Syria, who lost his leg in a bombing and fled to Amman with his family. He received a prosthetic leg and rehabilitation at Texas Orthopedic Hospital between March through May 2013, and also responded to interview questions over Facebook.
How did you first meet the PCRF and what did they do for you?
“I fled Syria with my family to a refugee camp in Jordan, and was visited there by a medical team, including a doctor working with PCRF. I later met the founder of the organization in Amman, and after a few months, I learned that I would get a leg in Houston. Today I am doing very well and my family is still in Amman. I am doing so much with my new leg. I even want to train to climb a mountain one day.”
How would you describe life in your country to people your age here in Houston?
“My country is in bad shape now, and things are very bad for the people. Before we escaped from Syria, there was nothing for me and others like me to do after the war started. There was no school and no normal life. I used to spend all day hiding indoors and sometimes even in a closet. On one of the few occasions I left the house to buy bread for my family, I was the victim of a bomb attack on my city and lost my leg. Two of my friends died.”
What would you say about your experience here?
“I was hosted by an incredible Syrian family in Houston (Bassam Barazi and family) who opened their home to me like I was a member of their family. I consider them my second family now and will never forget their kindness. I also thank the great doctors and therapists who worked so hard to help me. I hope to someday come back to see them in Houston to show them how I’m doing.”
Nahida Saker hosted a girl named Fatima, who stayed for 6 weeks. She had a hip replacement surgery and a leg extension (she was born with one leg shorter than the other). Saker spoke about the difficulty in getting proper medical care in many countries, “In the area they don’t have the equipment. I’m sure the doctors know how to do it, but they don’t have the facilities. They [The PCRF] give these children a chance to lead a normal life.”
When asked about her experience with her guest, Saker answered, “We took her to the beach, because she lives in a town that doesn’t have a beach. I took her shopping many times. I took her to a physical therapist once or twice a week. We had to limit it, because she didn’t want to use a cane or a walker. After the operation they gave her a walker, but she hated using that. She didn’t want to look like an invalid.”
She explained that anybody can become a host, “I run a busy life. I have a 26-acre farm, I have animals, I have a garden, I also teach at college, and I was still able to do it. People really need to take the time to do it. We have a shortage of volunteers, especially in the Houston area. We have a friend who just hosted another girl who had a prosthetic, and she did it because she saw me hosting Fatima, and that it was a positive experience.”
She still keeps in touch with Fatima on Facebook, “Just two days ago, she sent a text that she she misses the food that I cook, and she would love to have it again if she had the chance.”
This article ran in the December 2013 edition of FPH.