Pediatric oncologist Khadra Hasan Ali Salami faces daunting challenges every day working at a Palestinian hospital in East Jerusalem, one that lacks the resources or specialists of Israeli hospitals a short distance away.
Even her daily commute is a challenge, since she has to pass through Israeli security checkpoints en route from her West Bank home. Though her residence is a 15-minute drive from the hospital, she has to leave by 6:30 a.m. to make it to work by 7:45.
And the difficulties are even greater for her ailing patients and their parents, many of whom are not allowed to pass through those checkpoints and are left behind as their children — some of them infants — are transported to Israeli hospitals for treatment.
To start addressing what it sees as a basic humanitarian issue, Hadassah Australia launched Project Rozana, which since 2013 has focused on training Palestinian health professionals, offering transport for Palestinian patients to Israeli hospitals, and providing funds to treat Palestinian children in Israeli hospitals.
While filling those gaps in the health care system in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, Project Rozana also sees its mission as building bridges between Israeli and Palestinian societies that live side by side but often have little interaction — until illness or injury forces them together.
Salami was in the Bay Area this week as part of a seven-city, 12-day tour of North America intended to publicize Project Rozana and collect contributions. The tour included stops at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto and the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco.
“A lot of Palestinians believe we have to treat each other like human beings. I believe that through medicine we can build the bridge,” Salami said. “I’m here to say loudly that medicine is a bridge for peace.”
Project Rozana has contributed funds to support 10 Arabic-speaking paramedics working as medical interpreters at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital — which is located less than two miles from the Augusta Victoria Hospital where Salami works — and at Tel HaShomer Hospital in Ramat Gan.
It also has helped fund the Binational School of Psychotherapy at Hadassah Hospital to train specialists from the West Bank, Gaza and other areas in treating children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and it has created fellowships in subspecialties for Palestinian doctors in Israeli hospitals.
Kenneth Bob, a board member of Project Rozana USA and president of the progressive Zionist nonprofit Ameinu, said Rozana — which is supported mostly by private donations — is a bond-building project that can boost the morale of U.S. Jews who fear the chances for Mideast peace are dimming.
“I really believe for a lot of you that are despairing, this is hope. It can help with the co-existence issue without getting into the political issues,” he said at the Palo Alto session, which attracted an audience of about 50. “We talk about goodwill and developing relationships, and there’s this huge opportunity.”
Rozana also hired the first full-time Palestinian employee of Road to Recovery, an Israeli nonprofit that provides free transportation from security checkpoints to Israeli hospitals for residents of the West Bank and Gaza. About 100,000 Palestinians get referred to Israeli hospitals each year, Bob said, from patients needing chemotherapy to people with gunshot wounds, and few can afford a cab ride from checkpoint to hospital.
Smadar Shiffman of Palo Alto was a volunteer driver for Road to Recovery in 2011 while living in Israel, and said at the OFJCC presentation that it was an opportunity for her to help people without taking a political stand.
“This was a good chance for me to do something at a grassroots level, to meet Palestinians, to do something good that was not controversial,” she said.
Bob said Rozana recently was approved for a grant of 500,000 Euros ($621,000) from the European Union to support the Binational School of Psychotherapy, and in the coming year will be seeking government funding from the U.S., Canada and Australia. Rozana, which is not an officially recognized nonprofit in Israel, isn’t currently seeking direct Israeli government financial support, he said.
For the Rozana tour, Salami received special permission to fly out of Ben Gurion Airport instead of being forced, as a Palestinian, to depart from Amman, Jordan. On the plane to the U.S., she said she sat next to a young Israeli man who told her it was the first time he had ever talked to a Palestinian.
Dr. Raphi Walden, a vascular surgeon at Sheba Medical Center at Tel HaShomer who spends many weekends volunteering at free clinics in the West Bank and Gaza, said Project Rozana can increase the chances of more such meetings.
“We have an obligation as Jews to make the world a better place,” he said at the Palo Alto session. “And we are so close to our Palestinian friends, they are our cousins, descendants of Abraham.
“Many Israelis will never talk with a Palestinian, and many Palestinians will have never met an Israeli,” added Walden, who also is deputy-director of Sheba. “This friendship and goodwill we express by treating them, this is extremely important for not only the medical aspect, but for the peace-building aspect.”
Walden, who said he sometimes is criticized at home for treating Palestinians instead of Israelis, is well aware that many of the people he helps are committed to fighting against Israel.
“We have this conflict, but in the field of medicine and health care we are always concerned with taking care of patients,” he said. “We are in the same camp. We have a common enemy, which is disease and death.”