Cityfront: The human factor

Volunteers transport sick Palestinian children from the West Bank to hospitals throughout the country.

humans without borders (photo credit: JESSICA LEVING)
humans without borders
(photo credit: JESSICA LEVING)
It's 8 a.m. on a Sunday and Yehiya, four, and his father, Ahmad, are waiting in the shade outside the Bethlehem checkpoint for their ride to Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. They have been traveling for nearly two hours from their West Bank village of Beit Jala, a journey they make three times a week so that Yehiya, who has end-stage kidney disease, can receive life-saving pediatric dialysis treatment that is unavailable at the hospital in Bethlehem. Without the help of volunteer drivers from the Israeli non-governmental organization Humans Without Borders, who coordinate hospital transportation for more than 600 seriously ill Palestinian children and a parent or guardian, Yehiya and his father would be forced to take a taxi each time they made their trip. For Ahmad, who is unemployed and has another child at home, the fee would be nearly impossible to pay. "Before the second intifada, Palestinians could drive their own cars into Israeli territory," says Gamilah Biso, founder and director of Humans Without Borders. "But after the checkpoints were set up all over the country, they had to get permits, and they had no choice but to take private taxis. It was then that we started doing our work." Biso, who made aliya after fleeing her native Syria in 1985, says that although Humans without Borders could be considered a left-wing organization, the focus is on humanitarian assistance, not political activism. "Most of my volunteers who drive are not right-wing or left-wing," she says. "They are just people who want to help. They believe that Palestinian kids have a right to normal medical treatment, and they want to help them get it." "I'm Left, but not crazy Left," says Omri Lernau, a whose daughter heard about Humans without Borders on the Internet. "These families have to leave their homes so early. They go through so much. It breaks your heart." Still, such an endeavor faces constant criticism. "Once, a soldier at a checkpoint asked me, 'Why are you helping these kids? Don't you know they will grow up and become terrorists?'" says Biso. "But I told him, 'No, it's abuse from people like you who make his life miserable that will do that.' People who grow up seeing Israelis that are giving and understanding will never become terrorists." Biso, who travels to the West Bank frequently to work with families she considers friends, believes the work she is doing will foster a lifetime of intercultural communication and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. "A government leader just signs a peace agreement, and a year later he's not in that position," she says. "But if you make a relationship with a family, those people will never forget you. You can see that in the interactions between the kids and the volunteers." Indeed, at a Day of Fun last Sunday for five of the children who receive weekly dialysis, Yehiya smiled brightly and ran into the arms of volunteer Yehudit Warschawski, who drives him and his father to Shaare Zedek twice a week. "Shalom, hamud!" Warschawski cooed, sweeping him into her arms. Beyond simple terms of endearment such as these, there is little else Warschawski, who speaks French and Hebrew, can say to Yehiya or Ahmad, who speak only Arabic. "It's very difficult not being able to speak to each other," says Warschawski, who has been participating in the program for several months. Despite the language barrier, the drivers have clearly established special bonds with the children and their parents. The first few minutes of the party were filled with embracing and gift-giving on all sides. At a table decorated with a Middle Eastern spread of tabouleh, rice, pita, humous and olives, Ranya, mother of Rajid, four, kissed her fingers emphatically to show her appreciation for the food and joked with Biso in Arabic that her husband prefers Jewish cooking to Arabic. "[The volunteers] are really good people," says Suheila, mother of Yacoub, four, in faltering English as her son rolled a rubber ball back and forth with a volunteer. "They really like the kids." Biso says that interactions such as these are typical between parents and volunteers. "[The parents] never met anyone who really wanted to help them without serving their own interests," she says. "They are so appreciative. They respect the volunteers; they have become friends. Some kids in the other programs finish their treatment, but they keep up the relationship. They still visit. I keep a change of clothes in my car, and whenever I am in the West Bank and it's too late to go home, I am always welcome to stay with one of the families." "Gamilah is like the Mother Teresa of the West Bank," says Jennie Feldman, a volunteer. "She knows all the kids and their parents by name." Biso says that for most children, she knows only their first names and their village because as a Jewish Israeli, she doesn't want parents to be suspicious of her when they first meet. "I just know what I need to know to keep track," she explains. "We receive families in different ways," Biso continues. "We have connections with Physicians for Human Rights and with social workers within the hospitals. I have about 600 kids on my list. On a quiet week, we drive 40 kids to and from the hospital. Most weeks it's closer to 50. Most of the kids have serious illnesses, a lot of cancer of some kind. They need to be at the hospital several times a week. Some of them go through chemotherapy or a certain kind of treatment and need to be there every day for a period." Biso coordinates some 150 volunteers, most of whom drive only one way, one or two days a week. "I like that it's so intelligently organized, with one person driving each way," says volunteer Ofrah Evan. "That way, you don't need half a day - just one hour." Evan says she was very happy to have found this program and to be able to help directly. "I used to go to demonstrations sometimes, but it was frustrating because they never achieve anything. Even though this is only helping in a small way, it is helping." Biso is currently working to raise money for a trip to Funland near Ramallah for 200 of the children in the program.