Mak­ing a dif­fer­ence

Friday - - Contents -

Two teenage am­putees are pre­par­ing to climb Mount Kil­i­man­jaro to high­light the prob­lems faced by chil­dren caught in con­flict ar­eas.

To­day, two teens will be­gin a gru­elling nine-day climb of Mount Kil­i­man­jaro. No nor­mal moun­taineers, th­ese are Pales­tinian am­putees who have joined forces to bring hope to child vic­tims of con­flict. By Anthea Ay­ache

Yas­meen Al Na­j­jar lay in bed, a mil­lion kalei­do­scopic thoughts keep­ing sleep at bay. She didn’t mind though, her ideas weren’t that of your av­er­age 17-year-old, they were about tan­gi­ble op­por­tu­ni­ties to change the world. Yas­meen had grown up sur­rounded by en­croach­ing Is­raeli colonies in her small Pales­tinian vil­lage on the out­skirts of Nablus. Crushed by a mil­i­tary truck at the ten­der age of three and sub­se­quently forced to am­pu­tate her right leg at the knee, she had now been given the chance to change the course of her life and those of oth­ers like her. “Who needs sleep?” she thought when her mind was full of so many in­spir­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties, but sleep she must, she told her­self, be­cause those who want to prove the sky’s the limit need to be as fresh and healthy as pos­si­ble.

And Yas­meen is al­most lit­er­ally at­tempt­ing to reach the sky – along with in­jured com­pa­triot 16-year-old Mu­tus­sam Abu Karsh, she will be en­deav­our­ing to reach the sum­mit of Tan­za­nia’s Mount Kil­i­man­jaro, Africa’s high­est peak, de­spite the fact that they both wear pros­thetic limbs hav­ing sep­a­rately fallen vic­tims to Arab-Is­raeli con­flict. To­gether the pair plans to make the as­cent along­side a team of vol­un­teers led by Suzanne Al Houby, the first Arab and Pales­tinian woman to sum­mit Ever­est, to raise aware­ness of the in­no­cent vic­tims of con­flict while also rais­ing money for an or­gan­i­sa­tion that has saved thou­sands of chil­dren’s qual­ity of life, in­clud­ing their own, The Pales­tine Chil­dren’s Relief Fund (PCRF).

“I am at­tempt­ing this be­cause I want to raise funds for the PCRF,” Yas­meen says. “They helped me, now it’s my turn to help them.” Re­flect­ing her de­ter­mi­na­tion and courage Mu­tus­sam adds, “I want to be the first to carry the flag of my home­land [to the sum­mit] to help other Pales­tinian chil­dren and I want to show that we can do any­thing de­spite our in­juries.”

Their nine-day Climb of Hope, the brain­child of Suzanne, was in­spired by the spi­ralling vi­o­lence dur­ing the days of the Arab Spring; a time that the vet­eran alpin­ist says has left many chil­dren fac­ing an un­cer­tain fu­ture, es­pe­cially those in need of crit­i­cal treat­ment. “This climb comes at a time when there is lit­tle hope,” says 42-year-old UAE ex­pat Suzanne. “When you step out­side Dubai and see the mil­lions of youths liv­ing in ei­ther eco­nomic or po­lit­i­cal tur­moil, it’s re­ally de­press­ing. Th­ese two chil­dren, via this climb are rep­re­sent­ing the Arab world; they are help­ing to mend bro­ken spir­its.”

This abil­ity to mend is fur­ther strength­ened by the rea­sons for their af­flic­tions. Yas­meen was three and play­ing in the gar­den of her grand­fa­ther’s home when a mil­i­tary truck crashed into the fence, says Suzanne. “One leg went un­der the truck. She was in agony un­til she got to the near­est hos­pi­tal be­cause she had to get through all the check­points. By the time she got there it was too late and they had to am­pu­tate.”

Ex­plain­ing the sit­u­a­tion that has brought Mu­tus­sam to where he is to­day she says, “He lost his leg and

sev­eral fin­gers on his left hand af­ter an [Is­raeli] shell ex­ploded out­side his house in Gaza when he was nine. He was sent to the US for treat­ment through the PCRF.”

The or­gan­i­sa­tion paid for the young boy’s med­i­cal needs. He is now an avid swim­mer and mem­ber of the Friend­ship Club for Phys­i­cal Dis­abil­i­ties and is be­ing sent to Dubai to be fit­ted for his pros­thetic leg from the knee down.

Sav­ing lost lives

“Through­out my moun­taineer­ing jour­ney, I have en­coun­tered some in­cred­i­ble climbers who were climb­ing, not only against the hard­ship of moun­tains, but also against phys­i­cal chal­lenges,” says Suzanne, adding, “The chil­dren I’ll be climb­ing Kil­i­man­jaro with have taken it upon them­selves to make the im­pos­si­ble pos­si­ble, and in­spire peo­ple all over the world.”

And mak­ing the im­pos­si­ble pos­si­ble is some­thing both teenagers have al­ready man­aged. In Gaza and theWest Bank there is no ac­cess to state-of-the-art gyms or moun­taineer­ing train­ing fa­cil­i­ties, let alone the cor­rect equip­ment with which to train am­putees for the gru­elling climb.

None­the­less, with the help of Suzanne’s ex­per­tise and the PCRF’s on-the-ground staff, both Yas­meen and Mu­tus­sam have un­der­gone an in­tense train­ing pro­gramme of climb­ing, pros­the­sis check-ups, safety in­struc­tions and sur­vival tech­niques to en­sure their jour­ney from the base to the sum­mit of Mount Kil­i­man­jaro is a suc­cess­ful one.

And both teenagers have the will to make this a suc­cess de­spite the hur­dles ahead to reach the top of Kil­i­man­jaro, for they both have the PCRF to thank for where they are to­day, hav­ing re­ceived pro­fes­sional di­ag­noses, treat­ment and pros­thetic limbs all fully funded by the or­gan­i­sa­tion. An or­gan­i­sa­tion they wish not only to thank, but to help achieve its $1-mil­lion fund­ing tar­get for 2014 so that it may con­tinue pro­vid­ing cru­cial care for ev­ery child in the Mid­dle East in need of spe­cialised surgery not avail­able to them lo­cally.

“We hope that this climb will see many im­por­tant ac­com­plish­ments,” says Steve Sose­bee, CEO of PCRF, “not the least of which is to raise the aware­ness and sup­port for our hu­man­i­tar­ian med­i­cal relief work for sick and in­jured kids in the Mid­dle East. We have many chil­dren with med­i­cal con­di­tions com­ing from con­flict ar­eas like Syria, Iraq or Gaza who need med­i­cal care that their fam­i­lies can­not af­ford, and which we are obliged to help pro­vide. We also hope that by hav­ing two teenagers with am­pu­ta­tions climb, that it will be a sig­nal of hope and courage for thou­sands of other dis­abled youths in the Mid­dle East, and for the many more all over the world.”

Both climbers are vic­tims of re­gional con­flict them­selves

Words from a CEO whose im­pres­sive vol­un­tary pae­di­atric med­i­cal mis­sions in the Mid­dle East are the only grandiose fea­ture of this or­gan­i­sa­tion, which is head­quar­tered in a small of­fice in Ra­mal­lah in the cen­tralWest Bank, where Amer­i­can Sose­bee has lived for the past 25 years suc­cess­fully or­gan­is­ing life-chang­ing and of­ten life-sav­ing, pro­ce­dures for the in­no­cent vic­tims of war, poverty and oc­cu­pa­tion. Since its in­cep­tion in 1991 over 1,000 chil­dren in des­per­ate need of costly med­i­cal care have been iden­ti­fied and sent for treat­ment.

“Steve lives in Ra­mal­lah and treats Pales­tinian kids,” says Suzanne, “but that doesn’t mean he only looks af­ter Pales­tinian kids. They treat all chil­dren suf­fer­ing in con­flict ar­eas, re­gard­less of their colour, re­li­gion or na­tion­al­ity.”

It per­haps also ex­plains why Suzanne has high­lighted the work of the or­gan­i­sa­tion and raised funds for their projects on two sep­a­rate oc­ca­sions. In 2004 she climbed the At­las Moun­tains in Morocco to raise money for women’s projects in refugee camps in Jor­dan, Le­banon and Pales­tine and then in 2012 headed up a climb of Mount Kil­i­man­jaro to raise funds for the first free pae­di­atric can­cer unit in theWest Bank, The Huda Al Masri Pae­di­atric Can­cer Depart­ment.

“It was a real strug­gle be­fore to help those chil­dren,” says the climber. “We were one of the ma­jor con­trib­u­tors to that cen­tre. Its fully up and run­ning now and we’re re­ally proud of that.”

That will to help oth­ers has con­tin­ued to play large role in Suzanne’s life, in­spir­ing her to think of other climbs she could carry out to raise funds and aware­ness for those less for­tu­nate than her­self.

The cru­sad­ing climbers

Aware of all the chil­dren fall­ing vic­tim to re­gional con­flict over the course of 2012, es­pe­cially those who were los­ing limbs as a con­se­quence, Suzanne be­lieves a climb with am­putee youths would suc­cess­fully draw at­ten­tion to their plight.

“I knew this kind of a climb, with chil­dren in this age group who were also am­putees, would be in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult but very in­spir­ing,” she says. “Es­pe­cially that they would be car­ry­ing a mes­sage of hope at a time when there is so lit­tle hope in so many parts of the re­gion.”

In early 2013, Suzanne de­cided to make the in­ten­tion a re­al­ity and, in Dubai, be­gan to put the wheels in mo­tion to se­lect the right young­sters for the chal­lenge. Con­tact­ing myr­iad aid or­gan­i­sa­tions she was again moved by the PCRF’s ded­i­ca­tion and com­mit­ment and to­gether, they be­gan to se­lect the fu­ture par­tic­i­pants forThe Climb of Hope.

“Their so­cial work­ers re­ally helped me find the right kids,” she says. “The cri­te­ria was that they were in the right age bracket; needed to have an in­jury and had to have been treated by the PCRF; still had to be in school be­cause there are so many drop-outs; and frankly it was im­por­tant that they be psy­cho­log­i­cally strong and sta­ble be­cause this is no easy feat.”

Whit­tling down the can­di­dates to three chil­dren who met the cri­te­ria, Suzanne and the PCRF team se­lected Mu­tus­sam, Yas­meen and a young Syr­ian refugee re­cently in­jured in his coun­try’s con­flict. Sadly, how­ever, it was de­cided that the third par­tic­i­pant would not at­tempt the climb due to con­cerns that the trauma of am­pu­ta­tion was still too raw for such a ven­ture.

“One minute he was a nor­mal teenager grow­ing up with a school and a home, the next he was in a tent

in a refugee camp,” she ex­plains. “It all hap­pened in two years for him and was a lot to deal with. We have pro­vided him with psy­cho­log­i­cal coun­selling, fund­ing and a tread­mill [on which to train and re­gain strength] so we are still sup­port­ing him and hope­fully one day he’ll at­tempt a climb.”

For the other two youths, as the old adage goes, time has proved it is a healer and both have been able to make the nec­es­sary ad­just­ments in their lives. As Suzanne ex­plains, hav­ing re­cently trav­elled to Gaza to meet Yas­meen face to face, the spir­ited 17-year-old does not see her am­pu­ta­tion as any form of hin­drance to her fu­ture.

“Yas­meen is a star,” she says. “She has such pos­i­tiv­ity and such com­mit­ment. You just feel so hum­bled by how much some peo­ple have lost and the con­di­tions in which they’re liv­ing, but how much light they have to spread over the rest of us.” Suzanne was vis­it­ing Gaza af­ter be­ing is­sued a 30-day per­mit for an of­fi­cial visit to be hon­oured by Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas for her moun­taineer­ing achieve­ments. The first thing she did fol­low­ing the cer­e­mony was to take the long drive to Yas­meen’s vil­lage, Boreen, where she spent two hours with her.

“It was such an in­cred­i­ble mo­ment,” she says, re­lay­ing the ex­cite­ment with which Yas­meen ab­sorbed the in­for­ma­tion that the pres­i­dent knew about the climb. “She said: ‘I want to prove to the world that noth­ing is im­pos­si­ble,’” Suzanne re­counts. “I want to prove that be­ing with­out a leg is not a dis­abil­ity. I don’t see my­self as dis­abled’.”

Sadly, due to the on-go­ing con­flict in Gaza and with its bor­ders shut, at the time of writ­ing, Suzanne has been un­able to meet Mu­tus­sam face to face. “He has not even met Yas­meen,” she adds. “He is in Gaza and needs a spe­cial per­mit to leave and she can­not en­ter. The night­mare we are deal­ing with now is how to get him out be­cause Gaza is un­der siege and closed again. We’re try­ing to get spe­cial per­mis­sion for him; but even if we have to call pres­i­dents we will find a way!

“You can see him in a clip on our Face­book page (www.face­ pages/PCRF-Pales­tine-Chil­dren­sRelief-Fund/114319561948157). You see him in what looks like a ware­house where his ba­sic trainer is telling him to work out with the most ba­sic equip­ment and do more push-ups and he’s strong and com­mit­ted and still smil­ing.”

Fight­ing fit

Train­ing un­der such in­ad­e­quate con­di­tions has been a chal­lenge and will of course push the chil­dren’s re­serves to their very lim­its. Nei­ther Yas­meen nor Mu­tus­sam have had ac­cess to the kind of air-qual­i­ty­con­trol gyms in which many Dubai ex­pats train be­fore their moun­tain climbs, in­stead the pair has been guided by on-the-ground PCRF men­tors. They also fol­low guide­lines sent to them per­son­ally by Suzanne, un­der­take long walks in their lo­cal vicini­ties and work out on tread­mills that the PCRF has pro­vided in their homes. “The train­ing was very good and the train­ers have given me ev­ery­thing needed to strengthen my mus­cles,” says Mu­tus­sam. “The prob­lem is Gaza is flat, so I have not had hills to climb, but I go up steps.” While Yas­meen says, “At first I found the train­ing very dif­fi­cult, but now it’s easy.”

Such ba­sic train­ing only serves to fur­ther high­light the pair’s com­mit­ment. “This is what makes th­ese two kids even more in­cred­i­ble,” Suzanne says. “Even with a scarcity of re­sources they are will­ing to try this. Their com­mit­ment is in­cred­i­ble. In Gaza be­cause of the sit­u­a­tion it is dan­ger­ous for Mu­tus­sam to train out­side and of­ten there are cur­fews so we bought them both tread­mills so they could al­ways train safely in their homes.”

And safety both while train­ing and on the climb has been a num­berone pri­or­ity for the crew in­volved, with no de­tail spared, “No mat­ter what, no sum­mit is worth risk­ing any­one’s safety,” says Suzanne. “We have sup­port staff with us, they must wear a hel­met even though that is not a pre­req­ui­site for the Kil­i­man­jaro climb, we have doc­tors on the ex­pe­di­tion, the first-aid kit, and evac­u­a­tion plans. So we have ev­ery­thing set so we are not tak­ing any risks.”

A trip for change

“I feel proud to be one of those who will be climb­ing the moun­tain to help other sick and in­jured kids like me,” says Mu­tus­sam, while Yas­meen adds, “I am very proud be­cause it not only gives me hope but it also gives hope to other Arab kids.”

“Its one of the big­gest things to hap­pen to them yet,” Suzanne says. “But I re­ally hope that it is the small­est thing in their fu­ture be­cause I want them to go on, be amaz­ing and do great things.” She adds, “They are aware that when they re­turn they will act as am­bas­sadors, we’re pre­par­ing them for that. They know they will be giv­ing talks and telling peo­ple about the climb, in­spir­ing oth­ers with their story. They are re­ally ex­cited and un­der­stand the task and want to de­liver. When I spoke to Yas­meen she was so happy.”

The kind of ac­knowl­edg­ment the teens are re­ceiv­ing is the kind that Yas­meen, Mu­tus­sam, Suzanne, the PCRF and all its sup­port­ers want for all chil­dren across the Mid­dle East, chil­dren who have been un­fairly caught up in con­flicts and whose lives have been in­tol­er­a­bly im­paired as a con­se­quence of adult vi­o­lence.

Th­ese are the chil­dren for whom Yas­meen and Mu­tus­sam will carry the mes­sage that dis­abil­i­ties can be over­come. “Be­fore treat­ment th­ese chil­dren see them­selves as hope­less, they feel they have no fu­ture,” says Suzanne. “Af­ter re­ceiv­ing treat­ment they have hope again, a fu­ture.

“This is such a worth­while cause be­cause th­ese peo­ple [those at the PCRF] are re­ally chang­ing lives; they are giv­ing th­ese chil­dren the chance to live and the chance to have a gen­uine qual­ity of life”.

‘I am very proud be­cause it also gives hope to other Arab kids’

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Suzanne Al Houby (right) trav­elled to Gaza to meet Yas­meen be­fore the big event

Yas­meen and Mu­tus­sam train on tread­mills rather than out­side for safety rea­sons

Mu­tus­sam, seen here at the doc­tor’s of­fice, hopes to change the lives of other am­putees

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