Talking to someone like Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish is a humbling experience. I’ve got girls of my own. How do you start a conversation with a man who lost three young daughters and a niece when tank shells struck his home in Gaza in January 2009? A man who still found the courage to make the fight for forgiveness and reconciliation over vengeance and violence his life’s work? Where do you begin?
I began by thanking him, by offering my condolences. The gesture seemed hopelessly inadequate. Still, he thanked me for calling him. He’s like that.
Dr. Abuelaish is a Hebrew-speaking author and gynecologist who, along with his five surviving children, now calls Canada home. I spoke with him on the weekend about his efforts to bring some of the thousands of Palestinian children wounded in Gaza to Canada for treatment.
We all saw the images from the region’s recent bloody and inconclusive war: the mangled bodies of Palestinian babies and children splayed on hospital gurneys, being carried by distraught parents, wrapped in sheets for burial. It’s easy to sink into feelings of helplessness and rage over a conflict which seemed calculated to kill the most helpless — and over the intransigence of a Canadian government which continues to cold-shoulder efforts to offer some of these children a safe haven.
Appeal to our better nature
But if there’s one thing Dr. Abuelaish understands, it’s the futility of hate. He lost his wife to leukemia before losing his children and his home to war. Anyone carrying that much pain could easily take refuge in anger; nothing could be more natural, or more pointless. So he does the harder thing: He appeals to our better nature.
“My appeal,” he says, “has captured the hearts, minds and imaginations of the Canadian people because it is rooted in Canada’s values as a peacemaker, peacekeeper and (its) humanitarian spirit,” Dr. Abuelaish said.
[Ottawa’s response to Dr. Abuelaish’s overture has been dismissive — and the debate has taken on a malicious taint. Some have suggested that “terrorists” might use the humanitarian mission as cover to slip into Canada.
He’s getting through. Shortly after Dr. Abuelaish wrote his eloquent plea in the Toronto Star in late July calling on Canada to “don the robe of humanity” and for Canadians to “stand together as … one soul” to “restore hope to the suffering Palestinian families,” expressions of interest started to pour in — from the Ontario government, the federal opposition parties, doctors, nurses, hospitals, unions and ordinary Canadians.
A ‘coalition of the willing’ quickly formed to back Dr. Abuelaish’s program, dubbed Heal100kids, to airlift children requiring temporary, specialized treatment like plastic, reconstructive, orthopedic and neurological surgery to Canada.
Dr. Abuelaish hopes that, if it’s successful, the campaign will spur other provinces, cities and nations to offer aid to desperate children in Gaza — where hospitals are overwhelmed, ill-equipped and in many cases too damaged by the war to provide even basic care.
Jordan, Turkey, Venezuela and Germany already have taken in scores of children from Gaza for treatment. Other nations, including Great Britain, have arranged to send doctors and nurses to help besieged Palestinians.
Regrettably, Ottawa’s response to Dr. Abuelaish’s overture has been dismissive — and the debate has taken on a malicious taint. Some have suggested that “terrorists” might use the humanitarian mission as cover to slip into Canada. “Will the parents be vetted to make sure none are Hamas militants?” asked a particularly paranoid recent Toronto Sun editorial.
That foul question assumes most of these kids still have parents. The UN estimates that more than 1,500 children were left orphaned by the recent conflict. In all, 3,106 children were injured, with more than 1,000 left with a permanent disability. Any adult Gazans traveling with these kids would have to undergo security clearance before entering Canada. To deny children medical care here on the basis of the terrorism canard would be nothing short of obscene.
In rejecting Dr. Abuelaish’s proposal, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s office has offered Canadians this patronizing bit of mendacity: “Those who want their support to have the greatest impact must recognise the importance of ensuring innocent victims receive the medical support they need close to their families and loved ones, and that includes avoiding the medical risks and dangers of being transported overseas.”
Did Baird even read the outline of Dr. Abuelaish’s proposal? If he did, he already knows Dr. Abuelaish is proposing to bring in only those children who are in “stable” enough condition to travel, and that the doctors and nurses who would treat them are volunteering their services.
There is no justification to say no to this initiative,” he said. “Nothing is impossible. The most important thing is the will to heal … I believe it can happen.
Dr. Abuelaish has been trying to arrange a meeting with Mr. Baird. No luck so far. Astounding.
Mr. Baird and Prime Minister Harper should reconsider; Dr. Abuelaish is the sort of person to whom powerful people pay attention. He was the first Palestinian physician to treat Israelis and Palestinians in Israeli hospitals. He has been described as the Nelson Mandela of the Middle East. His long list of admirers includes Jimmy Carter and Nobel Laureates Elie Wiesel, John Polanyi — and Barack Obama.
Baird is a busy man. But if he can take time to holiday in London with friends, he can certainly clear an hour or so in his schedule to meet with a man who might be able to teach him a thing or two about the Middle East, its people and their hopes for a normal way of life. Is that really too much to ask?
Dr. Abuelaish doesn’t think so — and he’s not going anywhere. “There is no justification to say no to this initiative,” he said. “Nothing is impossible. The most important thing is the will to heal … I believe it can happen.”
If you agree, do something about it. Contact your MP. Blitz Baird’s office and the PMO with emails. And sign the Heal100kids petition.
Dr. Abuelaish says Canada has a tradition to uphold, as a force for “goodwill and humanity” in the world. He believes in Canada. So do I.
Andrew Mitrovica is a writer and journalism instructor. For much of his career, Andrew was an investigative reporter for a variety of news organizations and publications including the CBC’s fifth estate, CTV’s W5, CTV National News — where he was the network’s chief investigative producer — the Walrus magazine and the Globe and Mail, where he was a member of the newspaper’s investigative unit. During the course of his 23-year career, Andrew has won numerous national and international awards for his investigative work.
This comment was republished with permission.