Gaza hospital continues to serve the poor despite hardships

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem Suheil Dawani listen to a Muslim woman talk about the importance of Al Ahli Arab Hospital on Jan. 2. ENS Photo/Lynette Wilson
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem Suheil Dawani listen to a Muslim woman talk about the importance of Al Ahli Arab Hospital on Jan. 2. ENS Photo/Lynette Wilson
Published January 10, 2013
On a recent sunny day in Gaza, mothers and their children waited on benches on the manicured campus outside of Al Ahli Arab Hospital to receive care from a hospital-run program that offers three-months of services to 750 children aged 0 to 5.The nourishment program is just one of the many outpatient services the non-profit, public hospital operated by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem has continued as it transitions into a specialty hospital and weathers financial difficulties exacerbated by a recent loss of funding.

“It is our witness as Christians to serve the poor,” said Suhaila Tarazi, the hospital’s director. “With all that is going on in Egypt [political turmoil] and Syria [civil war], to keep a place like this one, a Christian place like this one, it’s important.”

The hospital employs 110 people, 30 percent of them women, and serves some 30,000 patients each year, 6,000 of them in the free medical mission, she added.

On Jan. 2, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem Suheil Dawani, traveled from Israel to Gaza via the north’s Erez Crossing to see the hospital, meet with staff and to hold Eucharist in its chapel.

The presiding bishop visited Israel and the Palestinian Territories over Christmas and New Year at the invitation of Dawani. In addition to the bishop, she was accompanied in Gaza by the Rev. Canon Robert Edmunds, the Episcopal Church’s Middle East global partnerships officer and former chaplain to Dawani; Alexander Baumgarten, director of the Episcopal Church’s Washington, D.C.-based Office of Government Relations; and the Rev. Canon John Organ, Dawani’s current chaplain.

After crossing the border, the group was met by Tarazi and her driver, and rode through the crowded streets of Gaza City past tiny shops, many selling cheap goods made in China or automobile repairs, to the hospital, that with its English colonial architecture stands out amidst the calamity of the streets.

Al Ahli Arab Hospital is more than an architectural anomaly and a medical facility; it’s a symbol of hope for a people living under desperate conditions and looking toward an uncertain future.

“People consider this place a place of security, an oasis,” said Tarazi. “People cannot understand that this hospital doesn’t have any resources. People connect us with the West, we are the living stones [1 Peter 2:5] here.”

The Gaza hospital is one of 35 health and education institutions across five countries in the Middle East operated by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. It is one of three Christian organizations – the two others are Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic schools – and one of 21 primary hospitals operating in Gaza.

In June 2012, after two decades of partnership, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, announced it would end its financial support of the hospital, cutting the hospital’s budget by $1 million, or nearly half, midyear. In July, the agency, which provides assistance, protection and advocacy for some 5 million Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, said it would extend funding through Dec. 31, 2012.

“From hour one Bishop Suheil said it [the hospital] should continue; it wasn’t an easy situation for us,” said Tarazi.

Following the UNRWA decision to end support for the hospital, the diocese committed to finding bridge funding through June 2013 and hired an outside consultant to conduct a feasibility study to assess its options for the future.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is funding construction on a three-story diagnostic center on the hospital’s campus that is scheduled to open in April, and the hospital also has plans to add a burns unit.

Moving forward, and depending on the outcome of the feasibility study, the plan is for the hospital to specialize in cancer, urology, neurology or ophthalmology, said Dawani.

“We hope we can do something to alleviate suffering,” said Dawani, during a luncheon with doctors and other professionals following the visit to the hospital.

The hospital also provides comprehensive care for women, many of whom are uninsured and suffer from cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. Cancer is the number one cause of death in women in Gaza, a place where women don’t share the same rights as men.

Given the high cancer rate, the hospital started a cancer-screening program for women, from which 30 percent of those screened required further tests. Many of the women come from small villages near the border outside Gaza City, and for some, said Tarazi, it is the first time they’ve left the village in years.

“The Gazan people look to this hospital to stay; everyone knows it is a Christian hospital giving a lot of love to people in need,” said Dr. Maher E. Ayyad, a surgeon and the hospital’s medical director, on Jan. 2. “We don’t want to be history.

“Please keep the hospital going; all the people in Gaza need this place. When you save a woman it’s not just her life, it’s her family.”

Although Christians number fewer than 2,000 in Gaza – where the population is estimated between 1.8 and 2 million people, 99.3 percent Sunni Muslim – their presence and mission are valued in a society where more than 40 percent of people are unemployed and some 38 percent live in poverty on a strip of land 25 miles long and between 3.5 and 7.5 miles wide bordering Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea.

Christian people are seen as “part and parcel of the society” in Gaza, and are “well respected and highly appreciated for their services,” said the Very Rev. Hosam Naoum, dean of St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem, in a Jan. 1 interview in the courtyard of St. George’s guesthouse.

In addition to the UNRWA decision, the political situation in Gaza, the worldwide economic crisis, and medication and fuel shortages, all have contributed to the hospital’s recent struggles, said Naoum.

“In these cases the church always finds itself in a place where it has to act. We have to tackle them the best we can. And thank God the church has its voice and its friends around the world and people who care for the people of this area, especially people of need and people who are suffering,” said Naoum on Jan. 1, the day after the UNRWA funding ran out.

The American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, a longstanding supporter of diocesan institutions, sent $75,000 to the hospital following the UNRWA announcement.

The 77th General Convention, meeting July 2012, passed Resolution B017 calling on the Episcopal Church to support Ahli Arab Hospital through fundraising and advocacy. The resolution was proposed by Bishop Jon Bruno of Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, which shares a companion relationship with the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. The Los Angeles diocese raised $40,000 for Al Ahli Hospital in 2012.

“Now in 2013 we are looking into the future in a way that we can run the hospital on our own without the UNRWA help anymore,” said Naoum.

Founded as a mission of the Anglican Church in 1882, the first dispensary was built in 1904 and later destroyed by the British during World War I. The British rebuilt the hospital in 1924 and it became a ministry of the diocese in 1982.

“The hospital is a profound symbol of healing in Gaza,” said Jefferts Schori following the Jan. 2 visit to the hospital. “It continues to be a source not only of physical healing, but of emotional and spiritual healing and the healing of communities.”

Referring to a conversation with a conservative Muslim woman in the hospital’s courtyard earlier in the day, Jefferts Schori said, “She has a clear sense of the mission of this healing institution and that it is for everybody, and that produces a more whole community.”

The presiding bishop last visited Ahli Arab Hospital in March of 2008, prior to the last major conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, when in late December of that same year the Israelis launched three weeks of air and ground assaults in response to repeated rocket fire by Palestinians in Gaza. Fourteen hundred Gazans died in the attacks.

Her latest visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories came just more than a month after the most recent escalation of violence between Israelis forces and Hamas, the Islamist militant Palestinian party that has controlled Gaza since 2007.

On Nov. 14, Ahmed al-Jabari, the headed the military wing of Hamas and the man responsible for the abduction of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, was assassinated by an Israeli missile while riding in a car in Gaza. The Israeli attacks came in response to the more than 750 rockets fired at Israel from southern Gaza in 2012, according to news reports.

The assassination kicked off a larger, eight-day Israeli airstrike campaign against Gaza. In response, Hamas launched 250 missiles into Israel, including in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, in 24 hours. In total, 161 Palestinians, including 71 civilians, and two Israelis soldiers and four civilians were killed and dozens of others wounded by rockets fired into residential neighborhoods.

“The last war was very scary and destructive; it all took place behind the walls,” said Tarazi, adding that she needed to be evacuated to a cousin’s house when a missile destroyed a police station 500 meters from her home.

Despite such challenges, Tarazi and all the hospital staff remain committed to serving those most in need.

“Shalom” and “salaam” mean the same thing: A community of peace with justice,” said Jefferts Schori. “And if it [the hospital] ceases to function or exist, that fountain of mercy and wholeness goes away. That kind of living water is needed in the desert that is Israel-Palestine.”

– Lynette Wilson is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


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