Qassem Tbeish and his mother on their way to hospital in Israel

The following article by Dr Akram Amro, appeared in the Commentary section of The Australian, one of Australia’s most respected newspapers. It provides a valuable perspective from an important voice in the Palestinian community, and underscores the achievements of Project Rozana in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. 

31 December, 2018

An Australian initiative brings together two peoples divided by ancient mistrust.

In his short life, Qassem Tbeish was loved by many people. But love alone cannot guard against illness and Qassem lost his fight for life a little over three weeks ago.

Despite his passing, Qassem had a profound impact in a place where it takes more than the untimely death of a four-year old from a congenital disease to make the news. More is the pity, because what Qassem achieved in life and now in death, can change the world if we let it.

Qassem came from a small village near Hebron in the West Bank. Because of renal failure and the constant need for dialysis, he was required to visit Sha’are Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem five times a week. It was an arduous round-trip journey that began from the family home at 5am and ended 16 hours later.

It was gruelling for Qassem and his mother, but necessary for life. Unfortunately, the cost of a taxi and public transport from the village to the Israeli checkpoint via Hebron and return was upwards of $250 per week. Even so, not every taxi would take a small child with an oxygen cylinder.

Typically, Palestinian families earn around $1,200 per month, so every member of the Tbeish family had to forego many basics we take for granted. If you ask what a life is worth, the Tbeish family can tell you with some certainty.

In January this year, options for Qassem changed dramatically. With significant financial backing from Project Rozana, an Australian initiative and now an international non-government organisation, the Green Land Society for Health Development, has been able to provide free transport for Qassem and many others Palestinian patients, through our network of volunteer drivers.

In a relatively short space of time we found 35 dedicated volunteers to drive people like Qassem and his mother to and from the checkpoints. On the Israel side, a well-established counterpart, Project Rozana’s Road to Recovery operates the service from the checkpoints to hospitals throughout Israel.

Compared to Road to Recovery’s 1,000 volunteers, our service is in its infancy. But Palestinians are proud, committed and sincere in wanting to help their neighbours. I have no doubt that our Project Rozana-backed service will become a similar force to its Israeli counterpart.

After Qassem’s passing, the Tbeish family invited relatives and friends to their home as is the custom in Palestinian society. Among the honoured guests were an Israeli Jewish woman, Ruth, and three local Palestinians, Ruba, Ahmed and Tareq. These were Qassem’s regular Road to Recovery drivers. They, even more than many extended family members, understood the emotional rollercoaster that the Tbeish family endured, and shared some special moments with Qassem.

It was on their shoulders that the young boy’s mother felt able to shed a tear.

Ruth, Ahmed, Ruba and Tareq represent more than a growing base of volunteers who are committed to supporting people less fortunate than themselves. They are part of a shared Australian-engineered vision between people who have been galvanized by the tragedy that took Qassem from his family.

While they dismiss their humanitarian gesture as a desire to be relevant in a time of uncertainty, the seeds of mutual respect and tolerance are sown. Had Qassem lived to adulthood, he would have been the first to praise their selfless actions.

It raises the question: why doesn’t the West Bank have sufficient medical facilities to cater for the needs of pediatric patients like Qassem? Why must so many Palestinian families deal with the high cost of transport, the uncertainty of the permit system and the delays that can occur at the checkpoints?

The answer lies, to some extent, with initiatives such as Project Rozana. This organisation has dedicated itself to building bridges to understanding between Palestinians and Israelis through health. Rozana is also working through affiliates in the US and Canada to fund the training in Israel of Palestinian health workers from the West Bank and Gaza.

Much of this training occurs in hospitals such as Hadassah in Jerusalem, Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv and Rambam Hospital in Haifa.

This is important because too many Palestinian doctors, nurses and therapists who train in Germany, the US and the United Arab Emirates are drawn to that lifestyle and higher wages and are lost to the Palestinian health system. The mantra of “train local, stay local” underpins the urgent call for this and future generations of Palestinians to meet their health needs.

I have witnessed first-hand how a mother’s love for her child transcends religion, nationality and politics. Project Rozana taught me that being blind to one reality can help to focus one’s mind on another. It was God’s will that Qassem should leave this world. But his memory will inspire those of us who see health as a pathway to a better future for Palestinians and Israelis.

Dr Akram Amro is the Chief Executive of Green Land Society for Health Development, a Hebron-based non-profit organisation dedicated to improving health and environmental conditions in Palestinian society.

The original article in the Australian