Renewing Hope in Gaza

by Gerry Lynch last modified 16 Dec, 2014 09:59 AM

Anglican hospital brings hope to war-scarred residents of Gaza

Linda Chambers, Ireland director of the Anglican mission agency Us (formerly USPG), reports on her recent visit to see the work of the Al Ahli Anglican Hospital, in Gaza, which is run by the Diocese of Jerusalem. The hospital is the focus of the Us Christmas appeal.

The summer bombardment of Gaza lasted 51 days. The war claimed 2,131 lives in Gaza, injured more than 11,100 and displaced 520,000, of whom most remain homeless, living in schools and other temporary shelters (IDF figures). 

In the city centre, it is easy to see the bones of a beautiful city. The streets are wide with trees and shrubs planted in the centre, but these are untended. The older buildings are elegant and the new buildings modern Arab in style. Every street is full of people. Small shops continue to trade, but most of the selling seems to take place on the street, where there is a good range of fruit and vegetables on display.

We are greeted warmly by Suhaila Tarazi, the director of Al Ahli Hospital, and meet several members of her team. There are Christians and Muslims. The ease and friendship between them is immediately apparent. What unites them – being Palestinians – is stronger than any religious division. Their concern is to do God’s work, looking after the sick and suffering of Gaza. 

We set off on a tour of the hospital. The grounds of the hospital are well kept, with several small gardens and many trees. Suhaila points out there is almost no green space left in Gaza because the population density is so high (nearly 10,000 people per sq km, compared to 66 per sq km in Ireland). Recently people have been building temporary housing in the city’s cemeteries, with graves inside the homes. She feels that it is important to make the small space around the hospital as attractive as possible.

Yellow girl.jpgOur first stop is in the paediatric out-patients clinic. A young mother and her underweight baby have been called in for a check-up. The doctor talks to the mother about nutrition. When she leaves he admits that educating mothers is useless when there is no food, and many babies live on tea and bread.

Waiting to go in next is a father and three children. Both little boys have been suffering from skin complaints and have raw red rashes on arms and legs and behind their ears. Their father and hospital staff blame chemicals in bombs dropped by Israel in July and August. 

In the waiting room for the physical therapy department, we are stopped by a woman with serious damage to her eye. She says her eye injury and a serious leg injury are the result of a beating from Israeli soldiers during the invasion in July. She was trying to protect a young man and was beaten herself.

As we leave the physical therapy unit, we meet a teenage boy and his father arriving for a check-up. The boy has an external fixation on his hip and upper thigh as a result of injuries received during the recent bombing. As well as broken bones the boy had a large piece of shrapnel embedded in his thigh. He says it was very frightening and he thought he was going to die. He and his father are full of praise and thanks for the hospital. 

Waiting in the burns unit, is a young man who yesterday burned his whole arm with boiling oil. There is no cooking gas available in Gaza and, like many others, he was deep-frying over an open fire. He will be treated with a whirlpool - a tank of water rather like a mini jacuzzi. This encourages blood flow into damaged tissue. The staff are awaiting the arrival of a tiny patient who while learning to walk sat on the cooking fire and has severe burns to his buttocks. He will get right into the whirlpool.

Psychosocial services is next. We enter a large bright room, where about 20 children are playing a noisy game of follow-the-leader. These children have been identified by hospital-trained community volunteers as needing psychosocial services. They are mostly resident in the inner city and the refugee camps. They come for two hours Monday to Thursday to play games which boost self-esteem and benefit from art therapy. On Fridays they are taken out for ‘joyful days’ to the beach or to some of the limited free space in Gaza. They are assessed each week, and offered another week if necessary, or one-to-one counselling if appropriate. After follow-the-leader, they settle into a large circle and are handed worksheets and colouring pencils. Today’s task is to draw something that frightens them, something they would like to run away from. Some draw very accurate helicopters and tanks. Some draw missiles hitting buildings, and one draws a dismembered body. They all draw from personal experience. 

Over lunch, Dr Maha tells me that out of 1.8 million people in Gaza there are now only around 1,200 Christians. The hospital staff comment on the importance of maintaining a Christian presence in Gaza. They are descended from the first Christians and are the indigenous people of Palestine. They are so grateful for all the support they receive from around the world, and are particularly grateful for our visit. They feel isolated, but not under threat from their Muslim neighbours with whom relations are good. Although they are small in number they do not dwell on that. Their message is clear: It does not matter if we are small in number - what can we do to serve our community? 

The hospital wants to install solar panels. Currently in Gaza homes, businesses etc have only four hours electricity per day. Areas are scheduled on and off, and sometimes your four hours will be during the night. Ahli Hospital has generators as back-up, and these allow operating theatres, electronic equipment, etc, to be used. But fuel for generators is expensive and one of the generators is 15 years old. The cost of providing solar panels is £120,000, but this is a very cost effective project as the annual saving on fuel for the generators will be £65,000.  

In Gaza City, the destruction is heart-breaking. We drive through the Shuja’iyya district where street after street of densely packed residential areas have been destroyed. Bombed buildings collapsed, floor falling upon floor, the layers clearly visible. Amongst the wreckage the remnants of people’s lives, furniture, toys, a lace curtain, and a collapsed wall revealing part of a beautifully tiled bathroom. We see mile upon mile of destruction, almost all of it residential. 

In places you can see the pin-point accuracy of the bombing. A mosque destroyed, and surrounding buildings untouched. Al-Wafa Hospital (the only rehabilitation hospital in Gaza) reduced to rubble. Suhaila told us the IDF gave only a 10-minute warning to evacuate buildings. Many small businesses have been destroyed: a detergent factory gone, its neighbours untouched. One factory owner was asked which of his two factories he would like to be bombed. All of this has added to a high rate of unemployment, now over 50 per cent.

If we needed it, our trip certainly convinced us of the positive impact we can have by supporting the vital work of Al Ahli Hospital. 

This year’s Us Christmas appeal is raising funds for Al Ahli Hospital is. Find out more and make a donation at www.weareUs.org.uk/gaza

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