January 16, 2020
By Rev. Andreas Thiel
Someone had warned me about the sun in Gaza … something about needing to be prepared for its intensity. Sure enough, standing in an urban courtyard in the middle of Gaza City at the end of last November, the afternoon sun was in fact blazing brightly, causing everything in sight to be brought into razor-sharp focus. It was then that the significance of the moment had its full impact: I had arrived. The goal of my pilgrimage had been reached. I had made it to the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital.
Just how did I get here?
In the spring of 2019, the Diocese of Huron PWRDF committee learned we had received a generous bequest. It fell to us to recommend how and where that bequest might be directed. PWRDF Executive Director, Will Postma, brought several options to our attention. Among them were food security projects in communities throughout Africa; clean water in Cuba; development initiatives in Yemen and Bangladesh. (Yes to them all!) But as the committee considered the possibilities, a bigger ‘yes’ began to emerge: Gaza. More specifically, the ongoing services – in the midst of extremely challenging conditions – being delivered by the staff of Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, under the management of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. As we made our recommendation, we felt gratified to know that in some way, we would be helping a far-off medical institution care for its neighbours.
Over the next several weeks, I learned about a planned ecumenical delegation to Palestine/Israel being organized by PWRDF partner, KAIROS Canada. Gaza was on the delegation’s proposed agenda. Imagine my amazement when I learned I would have the privilege of representing PWRDF on that trip and that I’d be visiting at Al-Ahli Hospital. What an opportunity, to connect in person with the beneficiaries of our recent gift and see its impact first-hand.
A trip to the Gaza Strip inevitably includes an introduction to some grim statistics:
- In 2012, the United Nations predicted that the area would be uninhabitable by 2020
- With a population of just under 2 million, Gaza is considered to be the most densely populated place on earth (about 5,000 people per square kilometre)
- Just under half the population (44%) is unemployed
- 90% of the population depend on some kind of food aid
- 60% live in poverty
Add to that the seemingly endless cycle of violence (exacerbated by frequent clashes with Israeli military at the border crossing), and numerous physical and mental health problems, and the picture grows increasingly bleak.
However, there are glimpses of light breaking through the gloom. Al-Ahli Hospital is one of them. The hospital was first administered by the Christian Missionary Society (UK), then a group of Baptists, and since 1982, the Diocese of Jerusalem. The hospital is committed to promoting justice and human rights from a Christian perspective, witnessing to the love of Jesus for all people. From psycho-social counselling, to breast cancer screening programs, to nutritional programs, nobody is turned away. All are treated, and the treatment is delivered in a spirit of love and service.
Our small group arrived in Gaza to a soundtrack of overhead surveillance drones, an unfortunate part of daily life for Gazans. The unexpected sound left us quite unsettled. The hum of generators also underlines the daily reality for Al-Ahli Hospital: some $50,000 is spent each year on fuel for the generators because the electricity there is unreliable and unpredictable. As with many other aspects (i.e. flow of consumer goods, food, water, construction materials), access to electricity remains firmly in the control of the Israeli government. Addressing the matter of fuel for the generators, Hospital Director Dr. Suheila Tarazi, made it clear that without the financial assistance of international partners such as PWRDF, the hospital simply could not function.
A tour of the hospital gave us a sense of the comprehensive healthcare that is being offered despite the many challenges. Thanks to the recent PWRDF gift, Al-Ahli was able to purchase special urology equipment that will be used to treat kidney stones, an increasing problem among the general population, especially children. Because of contaminated aquifers in Gaza (either by encroaching water from the Mediterranean Sea or other chemicals and minerals), 96% of the water is not safe for drinking. Those who cannot afford to purchase bottled water continue to use the unsafe sources, causing kidney stones as well as a variety of water-borne illnesses. In the summer, as people grow more dehydrated, the problem of kidney stones intensifies. With the arrival of the new urology equipment this month, Al-Ahli Hospital will finally have a way of eliminating kidney stones, and easing the suffering of many Gazans. PWRDF is making a difference!
Our whirlwind tour through Gaza (about 36 hours) brought us in contact with several other projects, such as vocational schools, that receive support from other global partners. It was inspiring to see how the young people of Gaza are being educated and mentored. Boys and girls proudly showed us some of their creations, such as wrought ironwork, woodwork and articles of handmade clothing. Older boys are being trained as electricians; young women are learning about computers and graphic design.
These are the skills that – in a normal environment – help prepare youth for the workforce. In Gaza, however, the future is a giant question mark. Will there be employment in a region that has already been deemed “uninhabitable?” I suspect that although the people of Gaza must be asking themselves this question, their most immediate concern is the day at hand. It is the daily routine – punctuated by numerous difficulties – that gives their lives meaning. Our delegation received a glimpse of that daily routine. Whether we were in the corridors of Al-Ahli Hospital or in the city streets, we gained a sense that for many Gazans, compassion and care are a vital part.