Israeli extends helping hand to sick Palestinians

Jerusalem (CNN) — Aya Abu Mouwais, a 3-year-old who lives in the West Bank, can barely walk or talk because of a failing kidney and liver. For much of her life, the Palestinian child has needed dialysis to survive.

Thankfully, an Israeli man has been able to help her get the treatment she so desperately requires.

More than 500 times in the past two years, Yuval Roth and his volunteers have driven Aya and her mother roundtrip from a checkpoint near the West Bank border to Rambam Medical Center, which is an hour away in Haifa, Israel.

“What Yuval has done, no one else has done,” said Aya’s mother, Suhair. “He is day by day helping us to get her to the hospital. I’m not allowed to drive an Israeli car, so if not for Yuval, we wouldn’t be able to transport her. I thank him.”

Leaving the West Bank is the only way Aya’s family can get dialysis. For one thing, medical facilities are limited in the territory.

“In the Palestinian Authority, it’s very expensive to get health care, and most of the people cannot afford it,” Roth said.

It’s also expensive to make the trip to Israeli hospitals. Although the Palestinian Authority allows sick children and adults to leave the West Bank for treatment, Palestinians are not allowed to drive past the checkpoints. To get to Israeli hospitals, they’d have to take a taxi, which would cost at least $90 each way.

Fortunately, there is Roth and his organization, Derech Hachlama (“On the Road to Recovery”). Since 2006, Roth and his team of volunteers have been giving Palestinians a lifeline.

“The volunteers are driving at least five days a week,” said Roth, a 55-year-old carpenter and professional juggler from Pardes Hanna, Israel. “Some (drive) in the morning to drop off patients, and others come in the evening to take them back. That makes the whole thing easy, since they can still go to work and don’t have to spend the whole day.”

For Roth, the transportation service is a way to recover from personal tragedy. In 1993, his brother Udi was kidnapped and killed by members of Hamas. After his loss, Roth found a way to channel his anger into peace.

“I heard an interview on Israeli radio with a man who lost his son in the same way that I lost my brother,” Roth said. “After the interview, I called him … and he said he had an idea to establish a group to encourage dialogue between bereaved families from both sides, Israelis and Palestinians.”

Roth joined the group, called Parents Circle – Families Forum, and befriended many Palestinians. All shared a surprisingly common need: transportation access to Israeli health-care facilities.

“One day, (a program participant) called and told me his brother might have a brain tumor. He had an appointment at Rambam hospital but no way to go,” Roth said. “He asked if I could drive him, and I agreed it would be no problem.”

That first call for help was more than four years ago. As word of Roth’s generosity spread, transportation demands grew, and Roth began to recruit his friends as driver-volunteers.

Today, Roth’s group has grown to 200 volunteers. Transport coordination efforts are run entirely by Roth, who spends many hours on his cell phone inquiring about the location of volunteers and Palestinian families. Each volunteer maintains his or her own vehicle, but Roth helps cover gasoline costs with donation money he has received.

Even though differences exist, including some language barriers, Roth believes that the program helps Israelis and Palestinians learn from and respect each other.

“When we are coming to pick up the sick kids, the (Palestinian and Israeli) checkpoint managers help us a lot,” Roth said. “It makes our life and their life a lot easier. I think Palestinian families trust me also because I’m coming as one of them. I feel like they are my family or my friends.”

Roth’s group has driven an estimated 90,000 kilometers (about 55,000 miles) in 2010 alone. He says they have helped hundreds of Palestinians get access to health care.

“I lost my brother, but I didn’t lose my head,” Roth said. “This activity gives me an essence for life. I have learned the price of the conflict is a lot more than the price of making peace. We are all human beings.”

ICRC: A Lifestyle

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) accepted me in 2001 as one of their infamous yet unknown delegates. After having attended the HEI and after having worked and travelled before that, the reality of my life fundamentally changed when I arrived in a small ICRC aircraft (“Red 607”) in Kenema, Eastern Sierra Leone. I started to do such previously unimaginable things such as talking to prisoners in private and speaking with the prison director afterwards; organizing relief distributions for 12’000 families, who returned home after the conflict; or asking villagers questions together with a nutritionist in order to find out how successful our seeds distributions were one year before.

The young girl from Sierra Leone is back with her family after two years of separation – family reunion organised by the ICRC from Sierra Leone to Liberia, 2002.

The ICRC became very much my life, as I was identified with the organization not only when I had to represent it in front of administrative authorities, military commanders, or the Sierra Leonean Red Cross Society. After this first mission, the ICRC moved me to neighbouring Liberia, where I was working with up to 80 Liberian staff and volunteers to deliver thousands of “Red Cross Messages” to lost family members and to organize hundreds of family reunifications of unaccompanied children with their parents. It was an extremely gratifying experience to bring news about loved ones to desperate people.
But the situation was difficult: We only had access to part of the country, and the conflict finally reached Monrovia in what Liberians called the Three World Wars (three attacks on Monrovia in summer 2003). We could only continue essential lifesaving activities out of a residence and a hospital we supported. I was evacuated twice, and once I stayed with the core team behind. In between attacks, we were able to move and distribute food, blankets, and water, trace missing family members, and repair some of our destroyed equipment. I saw the ICRC at its best, using limited resources to save as many lives as possible. I will never forget the energy with which our Liberian staff, many of whom have lost their houses and belongings, worked. And the people of Monrovia will never forget the ICRC as one of the few organizations, which stayed with them during their most difficult time.

Stray bullet in our office, Liberia, “Second World War”, 2003.

After the artillery shells, stray bullets, and child soldiers, I had to get used to a different type of unfamiliar circumstances when, after a long break, an Email announced my next posting in “Jenin, in the Occupied and Autonomous Territories”. As a responsible for two small offices in the North of the West Bank, I became a very tiny humanitarian actor in one of the most mediatized conflicts of the world. Both sides are very aware of the need for a humanitarian intermediary, be it for the safe passage of ambulances or the exchange of prisoners. On a daily basis, I would speak with people, who didn’t like each other (to express it diplomatically) about humanitarian issues, help to organize family visits for detained Palestinians, transmit family messages, and collected allegations about violations of international humanitarian law (IHL). Privately, I had Israeli and Palestinian friends, who often asked me on which side the Red Cross stood. I answered in the same way as my colleague, who was asked if he preferred Palestinian or Israeli food. He said: I prefer Japanese.

ICRC office in Jenin, 2004.

My present posting is in a place at least as foreign as Japan: Since January, I call “Abéché” my home. Abéché? I asked the same question. It’s in Eastern Chad, in the desert, on the 700 km border with Sudan’s Darfur region. With a team of 10 expatriates and around 30 Chadian staff, we work to establish the link between Sudanese refugees and their families back in Darfur, repair defunct water systems and monitor the situation of the Chadian population. And of course, we visit detainees and organize speeches about IHL to various “arms carriers”. I don’t know how the population can live in this adverse environment, let alone accommodate 200’000 refugees. To even try to start to describe the conditions under which we work, would not give justice to the diarrhoeas and the car breakdowns of our delegates.

Along the 700 km of border between Darfur and Chad, on a satellite phone, 2005.

After West Africa, the Middle East and the Sahel Zone, what will be next? I don’t know. The most frequent question I have to answer (apart from: “who is cleaning your laundry?”) is “How long do you still plan to do this?”. Answer: As long as I see a sense in the work, as long as I don’t become cynical, as long as there is something to learn, and as long as I haven’t met my princess. How many people can claim that they see a sense in their work, and that they enjoy it at the same time?

Marcel Stoessel

From OPT to Chad

dear friends,

i hope all of you are doing just fine.

almost nine eventful months in the northern west bank are coming to an end – a job which one delegate is reported to have called “babysitter between the israelis and the palstinians” (jokingly). well, they are difficult babies to sit on. at least it’s a compensation for having no children so far! and rarely babysitting is so intellecutally challenging like it is here…

destiny has found a white spot on the world’s map for my next mission. this is what rumour has about it: it’s in the desert. it’s 45 degrees in summer. field trips take 8-10 days and include overnight in tents. there is no beer to be found. the fact is that it is a sub-delegation in abeche, eastern chad, on the border with sudan’s darfur region. is there maybe some regret that I asked my personal manager in geneva for an operational context, adding that “living conditions are secondary”? noooo……..

anyway, here is the plan for the next few weeks:

27.10. Return to Geneva, weekend in Geneva
1.11.-4.11. Course near Geneva
5.11.-4.1.05. Holidays, mainly in Switzerland
5.1.05. Departure to Chad

hope to see you soon – and if you have wondered why you have not written me for more than a year: THIS IS THE MOMENT TO DO IT 🙂


Next mission announced

Shalom !

Time goes by very quickly, especially when you work in the ICRC, and when your 30th birthday has passed. After a long but short time in Sierra Leone and Liberia , the next adventure has has started in Jenin, a small ICRC office in the Palestinian territories. Much to be  learned, and quite a change from Western Africa. Shops and credit cards in Jerusalem, field officers who speak more languages than me, a culturally challenging environment, and much more. No beer-drinking with field officers like in Liberia, I am afraid (see picture), and internal curfew in Jenin at 18 h.

However, also no more “Monday morning blues”, since our weekend is Friday/Saturday (Muslim and Jewish holiday). 🙂

That’s all I can say after just a few days – hope to stay in touch with you.