Caring in the midst of Gaza turmoil

Palestinian families take shelter in a United Nations Relief and Works Agency school. Photo: Sharef Sharhan/UNWRA Archives
Palestinian families take shelter in a United Nations Relief and Works Agency school. Photo: Sharef Sharhan/UNWRA Archives
Published July 21, 2014

On July 18, the Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City got the kind of automated phone call many people in the city have been getting from the Israel Defense Forces. It warned of likely military action in the vicinity and advised the people there to evacuate immediately to a different part of the city.

Canon John Organ, a Canadian who is serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem as chaplain to Bishop Suheil Dawani, described the dire situation in Gaza and at the hospital in an interview with the Anglican Journal late that day. The interview was briefly interrupted by warning sirens going off in Jerusalem, where Organ is based.

A short time later the interview resumed.

“So a number of people didn’t come in, but as [hospital director] Suheila [Tarazi] said, ‘Where are we to go? And how can we possibly go?’ ” As of that evening, Organ said, “I have not heard anything, and I would have heard, if something terrible had happened. But they are the midst of the conflict.”

The hospital has not been hit by the airstrikes so far, but Organ said it sustained some damage from bombing nearby. “The tremors from it, because everything’s made of stone, caused some major cracking and then some collapsing of roofing in around the surgical theatre, the operation room, and there’s been some structural damage.”

The situation escalated over the weekend with the Palestinian death toll rising to more than 500, including about 100 children; 3,000 others were injured. Two Israeli civilians and 25 soldiers have been killed since IDF ground operations began last week, according to Israel’s oldest daily newspaper, Haaretz.

“We’re involved on strictly a humanitarian basis. We’re caring for people in need, and we do that through health care, especially in Gaza-that’s our primary ministry there,” said Organ, explaining the mandate of the hospital, which is run by the diocese. “We serve the poorest of the poor and right now our hospital has 14 physically traumatized patients. There are several children, but two children have had their entire family killed and they are with us now.” Organ said from the photos those orphans are about seven or eight years old. Organ and Dawani speak with the director daily to get updates on the situation in the hospital.

Organ also spoke of the challenges for the hospital, which he said has been running on a “skeleton budget,” since it lost funding that the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees had provided for decades. “We don’t know exactly what happened, but it was stopped about this time two years ago,” he said. Since the end of 2012, there has been no major sponsor and the hospital has run on individual contributions, but it cannot provide the care it once did, he said.

In response to the current crisis, Organ said the hospital has “geared back up,” bringing two former surgeons and five nurses on contract because the patients they are now caring for are “going to need two or three months of very intensive medical care,…[the director] had to have continuity of care for them for the long-term.”

One of the strengths of the hospital is a burn facility unit that was created a couple of years ago, Organ said. It is equipped with special pools for burn patients to be immersed in a solution that advances the healing. That’s fortunate, he says, because fires caused by the bombing have meant that there are many patients in need of that treatment.

One other challenge the diocese and hospital are trying to meet is feeding people.

“A lot of people come to the gate and seek food from the hospital, so they are feeding hundreds of people,” Organ said. The hospital also follows a typical custom of hospitality of feeding the families of patients, who often stay at their loved one’s bedside around the clock. “So with 14 in-patients, that means a lot of extra people are being supported there as well,” he said.

He echoed the official statement from the diocese and heads of churches calling for an immediate ceasefire and the resumption of peace talks.

The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund has issued an initial grant of $25,000 and an appeal for donations for the Al Ahli hospital.


  • Leigh Anne Williams

    Leigh Anne Williams joined the Anglican Journal in 2008 as a part-time staff writer. She also works as the Canadian correspondent for Publishers Weekly, a New York-based trade magazine for the book publishing. Prior to this, Williams worked as a reporter for the Canadian bureau of TIME Magazine, news editor of Quill & Quire, and a copy editor at The Halifax Herald, The Globe and Mail and The Bay Street Bull.

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