Yousif Mehanna, 13, is a teenager in Gaza who now has dedicated friends in several countries – including both Palestine and Israel. That’s what is saving his life. The same kind of grassroots networking will save the rest of us, too; I firmly believe that. It’s only a matter of time.
Yousif’s sister Nora died of an undiagnosed illness at 16. Then his brother Mohammed showed similar symptoms, and their parents were distraught. But the kids’ Aunt Maha fearlessly took charge. With Gaza hospitals barely functioning, she got Mohammed admitted to the Safra Children’s Hospital at Tel Hashomer in Israel. There, he was diagnosed with CGD, a brutal inherited immune disease. The mystery was solved. Mohammed underwent a bone marrow transplant (the Palestinian Authority paid) plus more than a year of outpatient drug therapy financed by ad hoc private donations.
Next, all Mohammed’s siblings were tested for CGD, but only Yousif tested positive. He began a prophylactic drug regimen. Recently he spent a few days at the Israeli hospital for his transplant pre-testing. The lingua franca is English, so his English perked up immediately (please… thank-you… how are you… what is your name… good… computer!). Yousif’s doctors hope to schedule his transplant very soon, with his sister Sabreen as the bone marrow donor. Then there’s a year or more of outpatient follow-up care. Judging by Mohammed’s experience, Yousif will soon know his way around the hospital blindfolded and will know quite a bit of Hebrew, too. With proper care, Yousif’s prognosis is good. Mohammed, fourteen months after his own transplant, is thriving.
In January 2010, Mohammed (now 15) was interviewed with his Aunt Maha by Dick Gordon of “The Story” on WUNC American Public Media. Mohammed told Dick that he and his friends play “Arabs and Jews” – pretending to fight each other with pretend weapons… and then, he said, at the end, “we throw the ‘guns’ away and all shake hands.” Once you make real friends on the “other side,” you can’t go back. It changes you.
The first Jews the boys have ever seen or known who are not armed soldiers are the hospital volunteers and medical staff. Yousif, like Mohammed before him, will doubtless soon get very attached to these folks. Mohammed’s favorite hospital volunteer lady is a dedicated 70-something Jewish woman from Tel Aviv. I think she’s a Holocaust survivor. She gives the kids Reiki treatments and is heavily into native American-Indian philosophy. Mohammed’s role model, however, is his dynamic young doctor at Safra’s Pediatric Hemato-Oncology Unit, Dr. Raz. Mohammed and Dr. Raz have been photographed together, over the last couple of years — arm-in-arm, both of them grinning maniacally – around a thousand times (okay, maybe only five hundred) by his long-suffering Aunt Maha.
Right now (February 2010), we are raising money to cover Yousif’s post-transplant drug therapy, which the Palestinian Authority does not pay for. We need an estimated $2,000 to $5,000 a month for about a year, until sometime in 2011, depending on his progress. (It’s hard to be more precise about costs now, because the follow-up drug regimen is adjusted month by month.)
So who are “we” who are raising the money? We are a team, but we think of each other as family. Yousif’s aunt Maha Mehanna in Gaza is team captain. Our friend Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American “business for peace” activist, founder of Applied Information Management (AIM) Consulting, who lives with his family in El Bireh on the West Bank, is the boys’ chief medical angel for the business community. And I’m the mom (Maha and Sam both call me “mom” sometimes; the boys call me “Auntie Deb.”) I am an oldish Jewish-American-Israeli writer-translator living in Abu Ghosh, a small Muslim town near Jerusalem. The boys have some very caring friends now in the UK, USA, Canada, Belgium, and Sri Lanka (so far), plus Israel and Palestine. We’re all family now.
We held a gathering of women in Abu Ghosh at my neighbor’s house one Friday: Jews, Muslims, Christians. We raised nearly a thousand dollars. Donations keep trickling in, mostly modest sums, but they add up. My neighborhood grocer Jalil gave $100 in his son Jad’s name. Ein Rafa printers (two brothers) donated “The Kid from Gaza City” photo cards for us to hand out. Lately I solicited donations from an English-speaking e-list I belong to, in central Israel, with about 700 members, virtually all Jewish. I know many of these people to be generous and charitable, but only one of them donated for Yousif. The other 699 can’t get past the fear barrier yet. But they will… eventually. Given all the existential fear that we are determined to change here, one out of 700 is a good beginning. The woman who donated lost her only son some years ago, in an auto accident, while he was a young IDF conscript soldier home on leave. She says she does his good deeds for him now, since he is not here to do them himself. In his name, she helped us to save a boy’s life in Gaza. All these children are precious; all children are precious – too precious to be dropping bombs or shooting missiles, or waiting in fear as they fall. One kindness evokes more kindness; hope breeds more hope; compassion has no borders. Only love prevails!
Original article published on Feb.18, 2010
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