By Palestine Chronicle Staff
Over the past decade, hundreds of sick and injured Palestinian, Iraqi, Lebanese and Syrian children have been brought to North America for free medical care that is not available to them in the Middle East.
Hundreds of volunteers throughout the country, working with local doctors and hospitals have joined under the leadership of the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund to ensure that some of the most badly maimed children get life saving care at no cost to them or their families.
The PCRF has remained active in responding to the humanitarian crisis facing Arab children on the ground in the Middle East by implementing their own relief programs and not being involved in political activities.
"Our main focus is to ensure that we reach every child who needs specialized surgery," says PCRF president and co-founder Steve Sosebee.
"We don’t give people cash, and we implement and carry out our own projects on the ground, rather than having other organizations do them, so we are sure that our work goes directly to the children in need. We provide services, not cash to people. It is important to be a professional and effective organization, now more than ever. We want to show that organizations working in Palestine can focus on helping people in need without the political or religious baggage of working in the holy land."
Of course, working in such a highly politicized area, where Israeli soldiers and settlers occupy the land and infighting between factions imposes in all aspects of life in Palestine.
The most effective work of the PCRF over the past year has been sending volunteer surgery teams into the occupied territories to provide direct medical aid for sick or injured children in local Palestinian hospitals. "Sponsoring and running surgery missions to Palestine and in Lebanon’s refugee camps ensures that we maximize our limited resources to its fullest extent," explains PCRF chairman Dr. Musa Nasir.
"To send a team of doctors from the United Kingdom, for example, to do open-heart surgery on babies with heart disease costs us only their basic expenses like plane tickets, hotel and food. We can treat nearly 20 children in one week, children who are dying from heart disease, and for a minimal cost. We think this is the most effective way in helping the people on the ground because we are providing a needed service, we are providing training and experience for the local doctors and nurses, and we are demonstrating to the people living under miserable conditions that we care about them and their children. I think it is more effective than any political activity that we can do these days. People need direct aid and support more than slogans."
This summer, the PCRF brought over to the USA several children from the besieged Gaza Strip for free medical care that was not available to them locally. It took the PCRF five months to get these children out of Gaza, despite the fact that treatment had been arranged for them already.
"The border between Gaza and Egypt has been closed, and we were not able to get permission from the Egyptians for them to travel," says Gaza project manager Suheil Flaifl. "We finally were able to coordinate their departure through Rafah crossing with the Egyptians on the other side, but it took months and several failed attempts to cross. Only the intervention on the part of the Egyptian consulate at the United Nations were we able to get them out." This was extremely difficult, says Falifl, because several of the kids were missing limbs and another girl was blind.
Getting kids out of Gaza for treatment in other parts of Palestine is also a task that frustrates to no end, says Sosebee. "We’ve had many of our kids who were schedule for heart surgery at the unit we sponsor at Makassed Hospital denied permits to leave Gaza, and two of these children died as a result. It’s very frustrating because we had space for them to get surgery, all they needed were permits from the Israelis to get to East Jerusalem. They were traveling with their grandmothers or mothers, so we don’t know why they were denied. There is never an explanation, just a rejection."
In addition to providing urgent and crucial surgery for sick children in need, the PCRF also manages several other important programs for kids in Palestine and Lebanon’s camps. Over the past year, the PCRF has provided hundreds of poor school children free eyeglasses, fit for free over 800 handicapped children in wheelchairs, run summer camps for disabled youths, manage a sponsorship program for handicapped children and provided food and medicine for hundreds of kids living in extreme poverty.
"The problem is obviously bigger than any individual or organization," says Dr. Nasir. "But by working together, and that’s what we do — we empower individuals to get involved in a positive way to help these kids live a better life — we are able to save the lives and directly improve the lives of thousands of Palestinian and Iraqi kids a year. We feel we can and should do more, but that depends on more people getting involved."