by Lamis Shibli Ghadir, an Arab social worker in the Ein Kerem Paediatric Intensive Care Unit at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.
I’m an Arab social worker at Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem, which models co-existence. I work with Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze children, whether they live in East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem, Settlements, Bethlehem, Ramallah or Gaza. Our school, for instance, is 40 percent Arab, 60 percent Jewish. Children cook together, listen to music together, and celebrate each other’s holidays.
At the hospital, I shield patients from the conflict and build trust, but communication can be difficult. Half the children speak only Arabic. We have three Arab social workers in the paediatric wing (two of us in oncology, where 30 per cent of patients are Palestinian). We teach nurses and doctors basic Arabic, and have translators, too, but they are only a partial solution: a Jewish social worker talking through a translator still cannot understand the child’s culture as an Arab social worker can. A nurse recently called me saying: “This father won’t hold his child. I don’t think he wants his baby.” I said: “This is an Arab man. Maybe he isn’t used to taking care of a baby at this age. It’s not unusual.”
Security can be an issue too. Children must be accompanied. I help secure the permit, liaising with the army and advising the parents. For children from the West Bank, it is easy: everyone can come. But for Gazan children, security concerns mean young parents cannot enter Israel, so the child is accompanied by one grandparent. To get any others, they must first go back to Gaza. Sometimes, if a Palestinian child from the West Bank needs urgent attention, the parents come in the ambulance without a permit, so I must arrange it. Some come illegally, with no arrangement. It’s an issue, given our money problems, but we cannot say to a father or a mother: “Give us money, or you cannot enter.” Hadassah is not a bank, it’s a hospital. For Palestinians, access is very important. West Bank hospitals are not at the same level. They lack plastic surgery and brain surgery. If they come to us through the Peres Center for Peace, they do not have to pay. It’s fantastic for them.
Security is a concern for families, too. Yousif, 9, from East Jerusalem, had heart surgery here during the last Gaza war. His mother cried constantly, even when he improved. The nurses asked me why. I spoke to her. She told me she had a relative in Gaza and asked me not to tell the staff, saying: “I’m afraid that if they know, they won’t treat Yousif like they do the Jewish children.” I reassured her that our staff would never do that, and over time, she had more and more conversations with the nurses and developed a very close relationship with them. Together, they celebrated Yousif’s birthday, and on his first day out of bed, a nurse took him to the mall and bought him gifts. Finally, his mother told them: “I’m sorry, I have a relative in Gaza.” It didn’t matter. They gave her a big hug.
At Hadassah, we try to separate health from politics. Half our team are Arab, half Jewish. We don’t discuss politics with patients because we don’t want to impact the quality of care we give. A Jewish girl, aged 8, came in. A falling kettle had burned almost half her body. Her father had been killed by terrorists during the Second Intifada. Her mother, 43, an Orthodox woman living in a settlement, was widowed with six children. Our policy is that, in such situations, it must be a Jewish social worker, but she couldn’t understand this and asked for me, because I had experience in plastic surgery. I went with her to the doctor. After, she asked to talk with me every day. She was there for six weeks. We developed a wonderful professional relationship. We never talked about the father. On the last day, she gave me a hug and said “thank you for everything”.
Sometimes we see children who have been arrested for throwing stones. They come to us from jail or the police. Parents must consent to surgery, but the police may not want the family to contact the child, so we talk to our lawyers. Once, we had a ten year old boy who had been shot with rubber bullets. He was in pain and could not see. We told the police: “Sure, do your investigation, talk to the child, but we need the parents, because he is a child!” They consider what we say, but it is complicated.
Recently, an ultra-Orthodox woman, 39, had her tenth child here, but the baby had a severe heart defect. The mother was suffering from depression and was on anti-depressants while her baby was in intensive care. She wanted to be near her baby, but she was afraid because the other families in there were Arab, and the Har Nof synagogue attack had just happened. I said: “I know all the mothers in there. They are facing the same difficulties as you. They are concerned about their children, just as you are. They cry all the time too. I promise to come and talk with you every day.” It was a long and difficult conversation, but finally she came. Like many Jewish people, she didn’t recognise me as Arab, and told me her difficulties. People bring the outside world to Hadassah and as a social worker I have to deal with what they bring. I have to understand each individual. This mother was suffering from depression and she was afraid. But now she has a wonderful relationship with the other mothers in the ICU.
We also worked with Musa, a baby boy born with a heart defect, whose mother had seen a Palestinian doctor in Ramallah and been told her son would die after he was born. She got a second opinion at the Islamic Hospital in East Jerusalem, where doctors advised her to give birth here, where the child could be operated on. It was very complicated surgery and he spent the first year of his life in paediatric ICU with us. I remember the first time he smiled. The doctor took a picture and ran down the hall shouting: “Musa smiled! Musa smiled!” He has just celebrated his second birthday at home with his family. He needed a feeding machine and ventilator, so the Palestinian Authority gave us the money to buy this.
So, at its best, I think Hadassah gives a glimpse of what co-existence can look like. I also think medical crises can help people overcome their fears and preconceptions.