Shaare Zedek Medical Centre is in a suburb of Jerusalem and one of three Israeli hospitals where Palestinians are permitted to go for treatment. The lobby is filled with a presentation on the history of Israeli medicine, the cafes full of visitors and patients. On the fifth floor in a small waiting room in the pediatric dialysis department sit seven Palestinian families. They travel from across the West Bank – Hebron, Jenin, Bethlehem – three times a week so their children can receive life saving dialysis.
I enter the waiting room; fathers and brothers with drawn tired faces sit silently on plastic seats watching a small TV. They nod as I sit and a heavy silence descends. A social worker passes and asks me why I am here? I say I am meeting Gamilah, that I have an interview with her. She breaks into an enormous smile; you are welcome she tells me and walks off. The atmosphere in the room instantly relaxes, all the men turn to me beaming "Gamilah you are waiting for Gamilah! She is a great, great lady!"
Coffee is shared, seats pulled in and the TV turned down as the men begin to share their stories. They have been coming here for years and know each other well. Their children all have permanently damaged kidneys and only a successful transplant will end their need for chronic dialysis. Their names are on the donor waiting list but even if an organ becomes available the operation will cost $60,000. Money none of them have. They can’t work full time due to the intensive hospital treatments required to keep their children alive. With no feasible end in sight, they are resigned to lives revolving around thrice weekly hospital visits.
Humans without borders
Yafit Gamilah Biso arrives in a flurry of conversations, warm greetings, handshakes and hugs. She is clearly adored by everyone here, Palestinian families and Israeli hospital staff alike. She takes me through to the dialysis ward to meet some of the children. Seven kids aged between 2 and 4 lie in cots with wires coming in and out of their stomachs clearing the toxins and impurities from their tiny bodies, a task their failed kidneys can no longer perform. Some are crying, others playing with toys. It’s thanks to Gamilah that these children can afford to come to the hospital as often as they need. She is the director of Humans without Borders, a grassroots NGO made up of Jewish Israeli volunteers who transport 600 children from Gaza and the West Bank to hospitals in Israel, saving their families thousands in travel fares.
A family in need
Gamilah started Humans without Borders seven years ago after a spontaneous reaching out to a Gaza family in need.
"After the second intifada the authorities stopped Palestinians coming into Israel. Then two families from Gaza were given permission to come to a hospital for urgent treatment. I went to visit them to see if there was anything I could do. The hospital only provided food for patients and the family couldn’t afford to eat in the canteen so I started to bring meals everyday. Then one of the mothers told me her child was ready to be released but that she couldn’t afford the 200 NIS taxi fare home. I told her 'No matter, get your things, I will drop you home.' And that’s how it all began. Initially I drove once or twice a week until one by one more of my friends got involved and we started to be a group. Now we have 250 volunteers and can cover 95% of the requests for help we get."
Brought up in Syria, Gamilah belongs to a very wealthy and important family, who also happen to be Jewish.
"I grew up in a Jewish neighbourhood in Syria. My family was very rich and I was their princess. My first car was a Ferrari! For most of my life I went to a Jewish school but when I was 17 I had to go to a mixed High School. It was here that I first met Palestinians and heard their stories. I started to visit them in the refugee camps on the outskirts of Damascus. My parents always used to laugh at how curious I was, fascinated by old people, always wanting to hear their stories and ask them questions. So in the camps I’d especially love to talk to the old Palestinian women. They’d tell me stories of the Nabkha, how they fled their homes in 1948. They still had the keys of their Palestinian homes up on their mantelpieces. A reminder of what they’ve lost and where they dream to be."
Gamilah came to Israel in 1985 after fleeing Syria and an abusive marriage.
"My marriage wasn’t good; I needed a better future for my kids. I had a son, a daughter and was 8 months pregnant again. My husband got drunk and told the authorities I wanted to leave and not come back. They took away all my money, my property and forced me to leave my son behind. It took a two year fight to get him back. That struggle helped me understand the pain of Palestinians separated from their families. It is devastating. I used to have to cross the border into the Sinai to call Syria because I couldn’t make contact from Israel.
"When I left Syria I didn’t have many choices. As a Jew I knew I could come to Israel and they would accept me. My Palestinian friends always urged me to come here and try to make a difference from inside. They’d say ‘we can not go back, but you can and help to make our dream of return possible.’ I found a city that wasn’t built on a Palestinian village and I moved here."
The Disraeli family
Gamilah introduces me to Ahmed Disraeli and his son Atzlhm. Gamilah is here to take them back to their home, and they invite me for tea. We bundle into her car which is clearly of a woman whose life is lived on the go; papers, toys, clothes and water bottles, strewn across the floor. Before we leave Gamilah pulls from her boot a selection of balloons, stickers, stories, pens and glitter for Atzlhm to play with. As we travel from Jerusalem, past the wall and checkpoint into Bethlehem the engine repeatedly cuts out, the toll of unfiltered petrol from the West Bank and the bad roads there. Her two phones, one Israeli, the other Palestinian, ring constantly with families requesting transport and volunteers coordinating times.
The Disraeli’s live in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Their narrow kitchen leads into a small room with a sink, coffee table, sofa, double bed and a door that leads onto an adjoining bathroom. The family used to live with Ahmed’s mother when they had to pay 1000 NIS a month to travel to and from the hospital. The money they save thanks to Gamilah and her volunteers means they could move out into this small oasis of privacy.
"In the beginning the families don’t believe we are doing this work for free, that we do it simply because we want to help them. My aim is to build relationships between Israelis and Palestinians. Otherwise I could collect money, buy a minibus and pay a driver to do all this. When these kids grow up and are told Israelis are their enemies I want them to have at least one Jewish person who did something good for them. Over time the families and volunteers get closer, as well as going to the hospital they take the children to the mall or the beach after their treatments. Our work is essentially humanitarian but we are building peace as well."
Gamiliah receives a mixed reaction to her work particularly from her own family.
"There are different reactions of course but most Israelis support what I do. They can separate sick kids form the politics and see it as a humanitarian job. Every now and then you get a bad reaction. Two weeks ago I was depositing a donation at the bank and the cheque was from a volunteer in Sederot. The bank teller couldn’t believe it; she said ‘he must be crazy helping those that are firing rockets at him.’ I said, ‘You think he is stupid? He is wiser than you because he is fighting for peace.
“The main problem is misunderstanding and ignorance. When I first tell people in Arabic that I am Jewish they look at me like I am crazy, I throw my hands up and say ‘sorry I left my horns at home’! Religion is not important in my life, for me it means only how you treat others. Nothing more. First of all I am a human being; I am not stuck in my Jewish faith but religion is political now which is why I emphasis my faith to Palestinians. We need to show the Palestinians that Judaism has another face, that it is not just a force to oppress them. We must create associations for them between Jewish people and kindness.”
To find out more, visit Humans without Borders